Alliance Defending Freedom Wins Significant Settlement For Catholic Farmer In Freedom Of Religion Case

Alliance Defending Freedom and the Tennes family are celebrating a significant legal victory for religious freedom after the City of East Lansing agreed to a payment of $825,000 in damages and attorney fees to Country Mill Farms, owned by Steve Tennes.

The case, Country Mill Farms v. City of East Lansing, drew attention for its implications on the intersection of business and religious beliefs and the constitutional right of businesses to operate according to their religious convictions.

The legal dispute began in 2017 when East Lansing officials, in an unprecedented move, excluded Tennes and Country Mill Farms from the City’s farmer’s market following a Facebook post by Steve Tennes where he stated the family’s adherence to the Catholic Church’s teachings on marriage, including during celebrations on their farm.

Despite the farm being located in Charlotte, 22 miles away from East Lansing, city officials enacted a new market policy targeting Tennes specifically and excluding him from the market.

Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) represented Tennes and his farm in the lawsuit.

What is Alliance Defending Freedom?

Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) is an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization committed to protecting religious freedom, free speech, parental rights, marriage and family, and the sanctity of life. Over the past decade, Alliance Defending Freedom has won multiple landmark cases surrounding these issues, including 15 cases at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Alliance Defending Freedom’s two ministry programs — Alliance Defending Freedom Church Alliance and Alliance Defending Freedom Ministry Alliance – that offer legal support and assistance directly to churches and ministries confronting challenges to their religious freedoms and mission.

A burden on Plaintiffs’ religious beliefs

In its judgment, a federal district court ruled that the City’s decision to exclude Country Mill Farms from the 2017 East Lansing Farmer’s Market “constituted a burden on Plaintiffs’ religious beliefs.”

“Plaintiffs were forced to choose between following their religious beliefs and a government benefit for which they were otherwise qualified,” the ruling stated.

As part of the settlement agreement reached on December 15, the City of East Lansing will pay $825,000, comprising $41,199 in damages to Tennes and $783,801 in attorneys’ fees.

Additionally, East Lansing has committed to respecting Tennes’ freedom to operate his business in accordance with his religious beliefs about marriage, ensuring his continued participation in the farmer’s market.

In a statement on Alliance Defending Freedom Media, ADF Senior Counsel Kate Anderson pointed out that Steve Tennes and his family-run farm happily serve all customers as a valued vendor at East Lansing’s farmer’s market.

“The court was right to agree that the First Amendment protects Steve, like every other small business owner, to operate his business according to his faith and convictions,” Anderson said.

“We’re pleased to favorably settle this lawsuit on behalf of Steve so he and his family can continue doing what Country Mill does best, as expressed in its mission statement: ‘glorifying God by facilitating family fun on the farm and feeding families,'” she added.