What If Country Mill Farms Discriminated Based on Race?

City of East Lansing logoCountry Mill Farms and legal advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom is suing the City of East Lansing with a claim of religious discrimination. According to the complaint, the City of East Lansing acted to exclude “a farmer whose family farm is twenty-two miles outside the City from participating in its city-run farmers market solely because the City dislikes the farmer’s profession of his religious beliefs about marriage on Facebook.” CMF claims that the policy “violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution as well as state law that prohibits Michigan cities from regulating activities outside city boundaries.”
Read the Country Mill Farms complaint here.
I want to raise a legal question with this post. I do so because I think the CMF situation may have a broader application to how Christians think about sexual orientation discrimination.

Background of the Country Mill Farms Case

The City of East Lansing includes sexual orientation in their non-discrimination statement.

It is hereby declared to be contrary to the public policy of the City of East Lansing for any person to deny any other person the enjoyment of his/her civil rights or for any person to discriminate against any other person in the exercise of his/her civil rights or to harass any person because of religion, race, color, national origin, age, height, weight, disability, sex, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, student status, or because of the use by an individual of adaptive devices or aids.

CMF operates a farm outside the city limits of East Lansing. They sell produce throughout mid-Michigan and host weddings on their farm. For years, CMF sold produce at a farm market in the city limits of East Lansing without incident. However, after CMF publicly declared their practice of referring gay couples to other vendors for weddings, the City of East Lansing changed their policy regarding approval of vendors for space to sell produce at their farm market. After the change, the city required that vendors operating at the farm market adhere to the non-discrimination code in their “business practices.” On this basis, East Lansing denied CMF space at the farm market.
The ADF complaint alleges that the City of East Lansing refused to allow CMF to sell at the market “solely because the City dislikes the farmer’s profession of his religious beliefs about marriage on Facebook.” Via the town’s Facebook page, I asked if the city took action based on the owners’ beliefs or their business practices. In reply, they said:

[I]t’s about their business practice, not their religious beliefs. The issue is that, as part of their business practice, they do not serve all couples.

According to the complaint, CMF referred at least one couple in the past to another farm and then issued this statement on their Facebook page in December 2016:

This past fall our family farm stopped booking future wedding ceremonies at our orchard until we could devote the appropriate time to review our policies and how we respectfully communicate and express our beliefs. The Country Mill engages in expressing its purpose and beliefs through the operation of its business and it intentionally communicates messages that promote its owners’ beliefs and declines to communicate messages that violate those beliefs. The Country Mill family and its staff have and will continue to participate in hosting the ceremonies held at our orchard. It remains our deeply held religious belief that marriage is the union of one man and one woman and Country Mill has the First Amendment Right to express and act upon its beliefs. For this reason, Country Mill reserves the right to deny a request for services that would require it to communicate, engage in, or host expression that violates the owner’s sincerely held religious beliefs and conscience. Furthermore, it remains our religious belief that all people should be treated with respect and dignity regardless of their beliefs or background. We appreciate the tolerance offered to us specifically regarding our participation in hosting wedding ceremonies at our family farm.

A court will decide if the City of East Lansing is discriminating based on the owners’ religious beliefs.

What If CMF’s Religious Beliefs Opposed Biracial Marriage?*

In all of these religious liberty cases, I have been wondering if Christians would rally to the side of religious liberty if the religious belief involved was to oppose biracial marriage. I have asked Alliance Defending Freedom three times if ADF would defend plaintiffs who refused to provide services to vendors who declined to serve biracial couples for religious reasons. To date, they have failed to answer. I asked CMF a similar question via CMF’s Facebook page, and they responded:

Thank you for your message.
You can follow the case at www.ADFLegal.org
God bless you!
Steve & Bridget Tennes

There are people who oppose biracial marriages on religious grounds. League of the South members run businesses; what if one of those people called on ADF to represent them in their religious liberty struggle?
I would like to address this as a matter of law. In the East Lansing ordinance, sexual orientation is listed along with race. Presumably, referring a biracial couple to another wedding vendor would be considered racial discrimination, even if for religious reasons. As a matter of law, how is it different to refer a gay couple? What if the CMF Facebook post said the following — It remains our deeply held religious belief that marriage is the union of one man and one woman of the same race and Country Mill has the First Amendment Right to express and act upon its beliefs? Would ADF defend them? Would Christian pundits write columns defending their religious liberties?
If the City of East Lansing is telling me the truth, CMF would be able to sell produce at the farm market if they served all couples, even if they ADF logoexpressed publicly their disapproval of gay marriage. In the public square, I submit that the image on the coin is Caesar’s and that Christians should give to Caesar what is his. However, belief can submit to no earthly authority as a matter of conscience. If Christians want to follow Jesus’ teaching regarding our public involvement in jurisdictions with anti-discrimination laws which include sexual orientation, I don’t know how we can offer our services to some and not to others. Believe what you need to believe, but serve everyone as required by law.
I still hope ADF will address this matter and provide their rationale for taking cases like CMF and Arlene’s Flowers if they won’t take the case of a League of the South member with religious beliefs opposing biracial marriages. Open discussion about these cases may take us closer to an ethical position which allows us to honor our religious loyalties while properly discharging our duties as citizens.
*Let me be absolutely clear. I do not believe CMF discriminates based on race, nor do I have any evidence that they would refuse to sell produce to anyone. I raise an analogy and seek opinions about why religious belief should trump anti-discrimination law for one class of persons but not for another.

Iowa Civil Rights Commission Releases Revised Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Public Accommodations Brochure

This just in from the Iowa Civil Rights Commission:

Iowa Civil Rights Commission Releases Revised Sexual Orientation & Gender Identity Public Accommodations Brochure
The Iowa Civil Rights Commission announced today the publication of its Revised Sexual Orientation & Gender Identity Public Accommodations Brochure.  The revision replaces the previous version which had not been updated since 2008 and clarifies that religious activities by a church are exempt from the Iowa Civil Rights Act.
“The Iowa Civil Rights Commission has never considered a complaint against a church or other place of worship on this issue,” said director Kristin H. Johnson. “This statute was amended to add these protected classes (sexual orientation and gender identity) in 2007 and has been in effect since then. The Iowa Civil Rights Commission has not done anything to suggest it would be enforcing these laws against ministers in the pulpit, and there has been no new publication or statement from the ICRC raising the issue. The Commission regrets the confusion caused by the previous publication.”
The revised brochure may be found at this link: https://icrc.iowa.gov/sites/default/files/publications/2016/2016.sogi_.pa1_.pdf

This new language is more clear:

Places of worship (e.g. churches, synagogues, mosques, etc.) are generally exempt from the Iowa law’s prohibition of discrimination, unless the place of worship engages in non-religious activities which are open to the public. For example, the law may apply to an independent day care or polling place located on the premises of the place of worship.

By independent day care, the Commission means a day care renting or leasing a place of worship and not being conducted by the church as a part of the church’s ministry. Ms. Johnson clarified that to me earlier in the week.
For background on this issue see these posts: Link, link

Iowa Civil Rights Commission Revising Guidance on Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, and Public Accommodations

The Iowa Civil Rights Commission plans to revise guidance on how Iowans can comply with the 2007 Iowa amendment adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the state’s non-discrimination law. Recently, the Alliance Defending Freedom legal group has challenged 2008 wording from the Commission which gives the false impression that churches must comply with the non-discrimination law in their religious activities and worship services.
The wording from the 2008 brochure refers to church services as if this means worship services. See below:
Iowa Church Case
“A church service open to the public” is the problematic phrase. This wording sounds like the Sunday worship service which for nearly all Christian churches are open to the public. However, Iowa Civil Rights Commission executive director Kristin Johnson told me that the word “services” was drawn from the Iowa statute and refers to economic goods and services and not worship meetings.
In response to public concern over the meaning of the phrase, Johnson told me today that the guidance from the Commission will be revised saying, “We are in the process of revising our publication and appreciate the fact that it was brought to our attention. It has not been the intention of the Iowa Civil Rights Commission to mislead anyone with respect to the Commission’s enforcement of the law.”
Johnson also clarified that the guidance brochure published by the Commission has been around since 2008. Earlier, I reported that the brochure was from 2012. However, Johnson said the guidance was written and published in 2008 but had a 2012 date because the brochure was migrated to new digital storage in 2012.
Even with the change in language, Erik Stanley of Alliance Defending Freedom told me today that the lawsuit will continue. He said he believes Iowa’s law is unconstitutional and should be challenged. The churches involved wanted to create facility use policies and ADF believes a lawsuit will help get certainty for them.

Church Files Suit Against Iowa Civil Rights Commission Over 2007 Law Change

Twitter was abuzz a couple of days ago with outrage over a brochure from the Iowa Civil Right Commission which provided guidance on how to comply with a 2007 change in Iowa law to forbid discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. At first, I thought the law had recently been changed but later learned that the law was changed in 2007 and the brochure was first published in 2012. Here is some of the reaction. Clearly the tweeters also thought the change was recent.

Let me repeat, the Iowa law went into effect in 2007 and the guidance was issued in 2012. The Supreme Court’s gay marriage decision had nothing to do with Iowa’s non-discrimination law.
Here is another revelation. In the nine years the law has been on the books, not one complaint has been filed against a church. Kristin Johnson, Executive Director of the Iowa Civil Rights Commission told me, “We’ve never considered any complaint on this issue in the 9 years since the statute was amended.”
Given the urgency of the stories about the Iowa brochure, I thought the document had been recently published and the issue was new.
As it turns out, Ms. Johnson is confused about why the Alliance Defending Freedom brought a suit now. ADF did not reply to an email I sent yesterday evening. Johnson said:

We don’t know what raised this issue. This statute was amended to add these protected classes (sexual orientation and gender identity) in 2007 and has been in effect since then. The Iowa Civil Rights Commission has not done anything to suggest it would be enforcing these laws against ministers in the pulpit, and there has been no new publication or statement from the ICRC raising the issue.

As to the language in the 2012 brochure, Ms. Johnson did acknowledge ambiguity. Here is the section about churches:
Iowa Church Case
The portion that is unclear is the sentence: “Where qualifications are not related to a bona fide religious purpose, churches are still subject to the law’s provisions. (e.g. a child care facility operated at a church or a church service open to the public). (emphasis added)” This makes it sound as if the Commission will enforce the law during a public church service, i.e., during Sunday or other worship services. However, Ms. Johnson told me that is not what the phrasing means. She said:

The term “Services” comes from the statute and is not intended to refer to worship or religious services. It was intended to be used in the general sense as provided in Iowa Code Chapter 216. The brochure was apparently intended to be a “FAQ” of sorts and an attempt to explain some of the legal terms. A less ambiguous way to word this might have been “services provided by a church to the public.”

The code reads:

“Public accommodation” means each and every place, establishment, or facility of whatever kind, nature, or class that caters or offers services, facilities, or goods for a fee or charge to nonmembers of any organization or association utilizing the place, establishment, or facility, provided that any place, establishment, or facility that caters or offers services, facilities, or goods to the nonmembers gratuitously shall be deemed a public accommodation if the accommodation receives governmental support or subsidy

The word “services” doesn’t mean worship services as is being commonly reported in press accounts of the Iowa guidance. Instead, it refers to the provision of a good or service in the economic sense. If a church allows a non-religious group to hold a bake sale or rents out a part of the building to a group that offers goods or services, the law would apply. However, using the example of a day care ministry, Ms. Johnson told me that “the question there would be whether that day care was provided by a bona fide religious institution and served a bona fide religious purpose.” On the other hand, the commission might look at the situation if a church leased their building to a day care business which operated without a bona fide religious purpose.
For some, this enforcement will still be unacceptable. In any case, the narrative that Iowa has recently initiated a move against worship services and religious freedom in church just doesn’t match up with the facts.