U.S. District Judge Paul L. Maloney granted summary judgment after a bench trial to Country Mill Farms (CMF) and its owner, Stephen Tennes, in their First Amendment Free Exercise lawsuit against the City of East Lansing, Michigan, which excluded CMF from the East Lansing Farmers Market (ELFM) because the company’s wedding hosting business was closed to same-sex couples. Country Mill Farms, LLC v. City of East Lansing, 2023 WL 5345236, 2023 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 146493 (W.D. Mich., Aug. 21, 2023).
The court premised its ruling on the Supreme Court’s decision in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, 141 S. Ct. 1868 (2021), which held that an anti-discrimination policy that was part of a discretionary process (i.e., to which there were discretionary exceptions) was not a law of “general applicability” and thus was subject to strict scrutiny when a person was excluded from a government benefit because of their religious beliefs. That is, the government would have to show a compelling interest not to exercise its discretion to excuse compliance with the challenged policy. In Fulton, the Supreme Court found that the city of Philadelphia failed to show a compelling interest that justified not making an exception to its anti-discrimination policy for Catholic Social Services, which would not open its foster care vetting service, operated by contract with the city, to same-sex couples. In this case, the benefit is being able to participate in the Farmers Market program operated by the City of East Lansing, Michigan. The city has an ordinance prohibiting discrimination because of sexual orientation by places of public accommodation. Country Mill Farms LLC makes its facilities available for wedding celebrations, but its proprietor, Stephen Tennes, will not rent the premises for same-sex weddings due to his religiously based objections to same-sex marriage.
According to the facts found by Judge Maloney, Mr. Tennes operates his corporation as a family farm, selling fruits and vegetables. He is the sole owner and manager of the company. He adopted as a mission statement for his business to “glorify God by facilitating family fun on the farm and feeding families.” The court found that Tennes “stopped running haunted houses, something his father started, because the practice was not in line with his faith. He has declined to host bachelor and bachelorette parties for the same reason.” The wedding business is a significant part of the farm’s activities, the court noting that CMF has hosted as many as forty-four weddings in a year. “Tennes considers the celebration of weddings at CMF as ‘a calling from God for us to serve.’ His religious belief is that marriage is between a man and a woman. “Because of this sincerely held religious belief,” wrote Judge Maloney, “Tennes will not rent the venue for same-sex weddings.”
For “a number of years, through 2016,” CMF was invited to participate in East Lansing’s Farmers Market, which is run by the city government and has limited space for vendors. Most of the spots are filled by invitation, and vendors are supposed to comply with published Guidelines. A planning committee decides which vendors to invite “based on the guidelines and past experience with the vendor.” CMF received an inquiry on its social media website in August 2016 concerning its position on LGBT groups and responded that due to its sincerely held religious beliefs, “we do not participate in the celebration of a same-sex union. We have and will continue to respectfully direct wedding inquiries to another mid-Michigan orchard that has more experience hosting same sex weddings.” This statement came to the city’s attention. “In late August, the city reached out to CMF and, because of the social media message concerning same-sex weddings, asked it not to attend the ELFM the following weekend.” CMF responded to this by announcing it would no longer book future wedding ceremonies, upon which it was allowed to attend that weekend and for the rest of the 2016 season.
However, evidently missing the wedding business and its revenue, CMF decided to resume booking weddings, but not same-sex weddings, which it announced in December 2016. The city responded to this announcement by adding a new subsection to the published Guidelines for ELFM, stating that vendors should comply with the civil rights ordinance and the public policy against discrimination, and the planning committee did not invite CMF to participate in the 2017 ELFM. CMF then filed an application to participate, which the city denied, explaining in a latter to CMF that its “business practices” did not comply with the city’s public policies, and that its December social media announcement was a violation of the ordinance and the ELFM guidelines. Thus provoked, CMF and Tennes filed suit against the city.
The court found that the city’s decision to deny CMF’s application “substantially burdened Plaintiffs’ free exercise of religion,” and this decision was “motivated by religious beliefs. Plaintiffs were forced to choose between their religious beliefs and a government benefit for which CMF was eligible.”
The court found that the 2017 Vendor Guidelines for the ELFM “allow for the exercise of discretion in at least two ways, discretion that undermines the general applicability of the Guidelines. First, the Guidelines allow for discretion in selecting vendors for invitation and for approving annual vendor applications.” The guidelines list 11 factors to be considered by the planning committee in deciding whom to invite and which applications to approve, only one of which is complying with the city’s civil rights ordinances. The ELFM market manager testified at trial that the committee examines these factors “on a case-by-case basis to determine whether to invite or not invite a vendor,” and could decide not to invite based on any of the listed factors. The City Manager testified that the Guidelines “did not include any indication about how to weigh the different factors,” including the factor of compliance with the civil rights laws. Judge Maloney concluded that “this functionally unfettered discretion means that the Vendor Guidelines are not generally applicable and function as a mechanism for individualized decisions.” The Guidelines also expressly state that the Market Manager may “grant exceptions and accommodations on an individual basis.” The court saw this as a “mechanism for individualized exemptions not functionally different from the policy in Fulton. And, the mere existence of the mechanism, not its exercise, ‘renders a policy not generally applicable.’”
Judge Maloney wrote that the provision on compliance with the civil rights law “is not generally applicable because it permits secular conduct through exemptions while prohibiting the same conduct motivated by religious beliefs.” For example, the city’s civil rights law “does not apply to private clubs or other establishments not open to the public” and “contains provisions that allow for discretionary exemptions,” such as “discretion to grant employment exemption for bona fide occupational qualifications” and reserving to the city a decision whether discrimination by a city contractor is a “material breach” of a city contract. The judge runs through all the provisions of the city’s civil rights ordinance that appear to provide discretion to treat various breaches as not material (and thus not disqualifying).
Furthermore, applying the strict scrutiny test, the court found that the city had “not established that the decision to deny CMF a vendor license is narrowly tailored to meet a compelling governmental interest.” The court observed that due to the discretionary exceptions that could be made under the laws, the city could to business with an entity that discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation, and had “not offered any particular justification for enforcing the nondiscrimination ordinance against Plaintiffs. Nor has Defendant explained why it declines to offer Plaintiffs an exemption from the nondiscrimination ordinance when the ordinance provides objective and discretionary exemptions to other business entities.”
The court also rejected the city’s argument that the plaintiffs “were not engaged in conduct associated with the practice of their religion,” pointing out the Supreme Court’s broad interpretation of the scope of free exercise. Having found that the city’s exclusion of CMF from the farmers’ market imposed a substantive burden on free exercise which had not been justified by a compelling reason, the court granted judgment to the Plaintiffs on their free exercise claim. This Order does not discuss what remedy the court might impose to enforce its judgment, but the clear signal of the opinion is that CMF’s future participation in the farmers’ market cannot be conditioned on its agreement to host same-sex weddings.
CMF is represented by attorneys associated with Alliance Defending Freedom. (No surprise there!) The Michigan Catholic Conference filed an amicus brief in support of CMF. Judge Maloney was appointed by President George W. Bush.