Defending Faith and Free Speech: Alliance Defending Freedom Secures Win for Country Mill Farms

In August, Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys representing Steve Tennes, owner of Country Mill Farms, achieved a significant legal victory for free speech rights when a U.S. District Judge ruled that the city of East Lansing’s decision to exclude Country Mill Farms from the 2017 East Lansing Farmers Market infringed on Tennes’ religious beliefs.

Tennes and his family, devout Catholics, are the owners and operators of Country Mill Farms in Charlotte, Michigan. The farm has been a symbol of community engagement and agricultural prosperity, guided by their mission to glorify God through their work and provide sustenance to families.

In August 2016, in answer to a question on his Facebook page, Tennes shared his belief about marriage being between one man and one woman in line with his religious beliefs.

City officials reacted by attempting to force Tennes and Country Mill Farms out of the farmer’s market despite their long-standing presence and impeccable service. The city eventually enacted a policy specifically aimed at excluding Tennes from participating in future markets.

Subsequently, the city blocked the vendor selection committee from extending an invitation to Steve for the 2017 market—an invitation that had been routine since 2010. Moreover, when Steve applied independently, the city removed his application from committee review and dismissed it.

In response to this unjust treatment, Alliance Defending Freedom, representing Tennes and Country Mill Farms, filed a lawsuit in 2017 in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan.

In the fall of that year, a federal district issued an order allowing Country Mill Farms to return to the market while the lawsuit proceeded.

In Country Mill Farms v. City of East Lansing, Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys argued that the city policy violated the Constitution’s guarantees of free speech, freedom of religion, and equal protection—in addition to other protections. They requested that the court restore Country Mill Farms’ constitutionally protected freedoms and to halt the discriminatory policy, declare it unlawful and unconstitutional, and award nominal and compensatory damages to the Tennes.

In its ruling, the court quoted the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, explaining that forcing such a choice violated Country Mill’s and Tennes’ “free exercise rights.”

The judge for the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan, Southern Division, wrote that Tennes and Country Mill Farms “were forced to choose between following their religious beliefs and a government benefit for which they were otherwise qualified” and that the market ban was “a burden on the plaintiff’s religious beliefs.”

ADF Senior Counsel Kate Anderson, who argued before the court in 2021 on behalf of Tennes and his farm, expressed satisfaction at the ruling, saying on Alliance Defending Freedom Media, “The district court’s decision rightly protects Steve’s freedom to operate his business according to his convictions. Country Mill has continued to participate in the farmer’s market without issue during this litigation.”

“Tennes and Country Mill Farms are grateful for the court’s decision protecting religious liberty,” Anderson continued. “At the same time, they are eager to mend fences with current city officials and get back to 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.

Alliance Defending Freedom 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.

As a legal organization rooted in faith, Alliance Defending Freedom remains steadfast in its mission to protect religious freedom and uphold the First Amendment rights of churches and ministries. The organization extends legal assistance and guidance to churches and faith-based organizations through its two ministry branches: Alliance Defending Freedom Church Alliance and Alliance Defending Freedom Ministry Alliance.