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The new cost of doing business: Toeing the line on politically correct beliefs

WASHINGTON (RNS) — Small businesses — those with fewer than 50 workers — already pay, on average, more than $11,000 per employee per year because of federal regulations. Now, city officials in East Lansing, Mich., are adding a new burden: Anyone wishing to do business in their town must toe the (city) line on politically correct beliefs. 

Specifically, they’ve made compliance with their views on gay marriage a new “cost of doing business.” 

City officials saw a Facebook exchange in which Steve Tennes said that his family couldn’t host same-sex weddings on their farm, Country Mill, because such ceremonies are inconsistent with their deeply held beliefs about marriage. The officials promptly banned Country Mill from the city’s farmers market, where Tennes had been selling his fresh produce since 2010. 

RELATED: Catholic farmer ousted from Michigan market over same-sex marriage views

Steve and his wife, Bridget, have never discriminated on the basis of sexual orientation. They have sold their produce to — and hired — people who identify as LGBT. They didn’t treat anyone differently because of their sexual orientation, but they believe that marriage is between one man and one woman and don’t want to violate their consciences.

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Nor should they have to. When the Supreme Court redefined marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that the traditional view of marriage was based on “decent and honorable premises.” He added that no one should be disparaged for holding those beliefs. But, the city of East Lansing has done exactly that, misusing Obergefell to justify punishment of the Tennes family for their beliefs.

The Supreme Court’s decision was about the obligations of state governments. It didn’t give governments carte blanche to force farmers, bakers, florists and photographers to host or celebrate same-sex weddings.

What we see in East Lansing is an overly aggressive local government targeting a small business because of a difference of opinion. The clear evidence of this is the lack of a complaint from any customer alleging any actual harm by Country Mill, because there was none.

Which is why the Tennes family is going to court this week over its lawsuit against East Lansing.

Steve and Bridget both served in the U.S. military. When they left to start running a farm, they never expected that the government they served would punish them for their religious beliefs.

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By all accounts, Country Mill had been a model vendor at the East Lansing market, graciously serving all customers. But when officials saw the Facebook post, they discouraged Country Mill from coming to the market, hinting there might be protests.

Steve and Bridget weren’t deterred, so the city then drafted a policy to exclude Country Mill from the market. The policy treats sexual orientation as a protected class, something federal civil rights law does not do.

The policy also applies not just to what happens at the farmers market, but to how business owners operate anywhere in the state. East Lansing is overreaching beyond its own jurisdiction — violating Michigan’s “Home Rule City Act” to punish Country Mill, which is 22 miles outside of East Lansing.

The new cost of doing business is high. “It’s a major financial burden to be shut out and excluded from the farmers market,” Steve Tennes says.

Kate Anderson, an attorney with Alliance Defending Freedom who represents the family, said the city’s message is clear: “We can hurt your livelihood if you don’t ascribe to a belief that we agree with.”

East Lansing city officials never enforced their policy against any other vendor. The city’s use of the market as a weapon to force the Tennes family to disavow their beliefs violates their freedom of religion and expression.

When governments use economic weapons to silence individuals for their beliefs, all Americans should pay attention. If a government can punish one family-owned business for their beliefs, what power restrains it from punishing other businesses for other beliefs? If a government can ban a farm from selling at one market, what’s to stop it from banning other businesses from selling in other marketplaces?

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East Lansing suggests it may allow Country Mill to return if the Tennes family denies their beliefs and conforms to the city’s ideas of marriage. But Steve and Bridget aren’t backing down.

And they shouldn’t have to choose between their faith and their livelihood. East Lansing’s policy violates the freedom of Americans to run their businesses according to their consciences.

No American should be coerced by their local, state or federal government into abandoning their religious or moral beliefs. Violation of individual conscience should never be the price of doing business.

(Emilie Kao is director of the Heritage Foundation’s DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society. Laura Cermak is a member of the foundation’s Young Leaders Program.)