The lawsuit against the City of East Lansing by Stephen Tennes and his company, Country Mill Farms, LLC, heads to federal court today, more than four years after the case was first filed in 2017. Tennes filed the lawsuit after the City amended its farmers’ market vendor policies to require that vendors’ business practices in all locations align with the City’s civil rights ordinance.
Tennes alleged that he was targeted by the City for his Roman Catholic religious beliefs after posting on Facebook that he would not permit same-sex marriages at his for-rent orchard in Charlotte, Michigan.
ELi is a public service, nonprofit news service dedicated to East Lansing, and one of our goals is to be transparent with you about our reporting decisions. So, as ELi’s Managing Editor, today I am writing to explain on behalf of the editorial team that we will not be sending a reporter each day to the Kalamazoo Federal Building where the case is being tried.
There are two basic reasons for this decision: our limited resources and the fact that many other news outlets are choosing to cover the high-profile case.
ELi’s former Managing Editor Ann Nichols has in the past been our lead reporter on this case, drawing on her law degree and professional experience. But as Nichols recently returned to practicing law, she no longer works as a legal reporter for ELi.
Ann is now on ELi’s voluntary Board of Directors as our Public Editor, and today, Ann, ELi Publisher Alice Dreger, and I concluded that sending me or another reporter to Kalamazoo to report in-person for several days was not a savvy choice of resource expenditure for ELi.
Reporting on the case would require whoever was reporting from East Lansing for ELi to drive three hours round trip, be present in court for about eight hours, and then spend hours after returning home to sift through notes and write up reports. We would have to compensate them not only for their time but for the mileage.
If no one else was going to cover this trial, we would certainly consider it. But other news outlets are, so this struck us as amounting to an inefficient use of our supporters’ money. ELi runs almost entirely on donations given by generous members of our community who support our core mission, which is to provide East Lansing-specific, hyperlocal news reporting related to public schools and government, particularly news that would otherwise go completely unreported.
We take how we spend your money very seriously. For example, you might have seen that we held a separate – and successful – fundraiser in late June and early July for our Youth Journalism Program, since that public service goes beyond what we fundraise for in terms of our core news production service.
You may have also seen that, on Monday, we launched a campaign to raise funds specifically dedicated to reporting on East Lansing Public Schools’ athletics. We hope to raise $15,000 to bring our readers approximately 60 articles during the 2021-2022 school year about our young and talented ELPS athletes. You can support that goal and read more about how donations will be used here.
But the reason we keep that kind of fundraising system separate from our core is because we know our central mission remains covering what’s happening day-to-day in our City government and ELPS administration, bringing critical news reporting – including hard-hitting investigative reporting – that no other news organization does.
We will continue to meet that mission by monitoring the Country Mill suit court records and reporting the verdict in the case to our readers. We are also watching for reports from other media outlets so we can share their best work with you. But we are not going to spend thousands of dollars to cover the courtroom action.
For those who are unfamiliar with the lawsuit history, here’s a quick recap.
Stephen Tennes and his business, Country Mill Farms, LLC, alleged in their 2017 lawsuit that the City of East Lansing excluded Country Mill from the East Lansing’s Farmers’ Market in 2017 “solely because the City dislikes the farmer’s profession of his religious beliefs about marriage on Facebook.”
The lawsuit came after the City prevented Country Mill from selling their products at the East Lansing Farmers’ Market following Tennes’ post on Facebook explaining why he would not hold same-sex marriages at Country Mill’s orchard, located in Charlotte, Michigan.
Some in the community called to boycott or protest Country Mill at the Farmers’ Market after the post, and the City moved to amend its vendor policies to specifically state that vendors must comply with the City’s Civil Rights ordinances and policies “while at the [East Lansing Farmers’ Market] and as a general business practice.”
After the lawsuit was filed, then-City Attorney Tom Yeadon told ELi that “the City did revise its policy after receiving complaints about this particular vendor’s business practices.” In response to the lawsuit being filed, the City also said that Country Mill’s “business practices violate the City of East Lansing’s long-standing ordinance that protects sexual orientation as well as the Supreme Court’s ruling that grants the right for same-sex couples to be married.”
Ann Nichols broke down the legal arguments in the initial court filings here, translating for our readers the complex legalese into layperson’s terms.
She also explained the crux of the issue in another article, writing, “While the Country Mill suit revolves around the business owners’ refusal to perform same-sex marriages at a farm located outside the City of East Lansing, refusal to sell cider to a gay couple at the Farmers’ Market would have been clearly prohibited discrimination. The lawsuit will determine whether East Lansing can bar Country Mill for the business policy with regard to hosting marriages in Charlotte.”
During the summer of 2017, the City received national pushback as individuals from states as far away as Texas and Alaska sent hundreds of messages to City leaders, decrying their actions.
In September 2017, Judge Paul Maloney of the United States District Court for the Western District of Michigan ordered the City to allow Country Mill to sell at the East Lansing Farmers’ Market for the rest of the 2017 season. Country Mill continued to sell in future seasons under Maloney’s order – a fact that has caused some legal experts to speculate to ELi that East Lansing is likely to lose the suit.
The court case has dragged on for four years, and already by 2019, the case had cost the City significant money. A 2019 Freedom of Information Act request showed that, through April 2019, the City paid the law firm of Plunkett Cooney $176,594 for legal defense in the Country Mill case, and paid the firm of contracted City Attorney Tom Yeadon an additional $5,589 in related fees. By June 2020, the costs had risen to total nearly $200,000.
The costs associated with the suit are above and beyond the half-million dollars the City pays for general counsel services now to the firm Foster Swift. Council is currently engaged in renegotiation of that contract, as ELi recently reported.
ELi also reported in June 2019 that then-Mayor Mark Meadows defended the cost of the Country Mill suit, saying he thought it was an extraordinarily important issue that will ultimately be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.
But a few months later, Council Member Ruth Beier, who had supported the City’s decision in the Country Mill case, voted against a law criminalizing the practice of LGBT “conversion therapy” in East Lansing while alluding to the City’s expensive legal struggle in the Country Mill case.