Imagine the following bizarre conversation after a New York City police officer pulled someone over on the way to Newark Airport.
Officer: Is that a 32-ounce soft drink?
Man: Yes, officer.
Officer: Well, I’m going to have to ticket you for that. New York City recently banned consumption of soft drinks larger than 16 ounces.
Man: I’m sorry, officer. I didn’t know about that law. But we’re currently in New Jersey now, and I bought the drink in New Jersey after leaving New York. So I’m confused.
Officer: Doesn’t matter. As part of the law, New York banned anyone from doing business in the city if he or she drinks soft drinks larger than 16 ounces anywhere.
Man: Wow. The city must seriously dislike soft drinks. Okay, but one more question, if you don’t mind. How did you even know to pull me over for the drink after my business trip?
Officer: Well, the city monitors social media, so when you posted a picture of the soft drink, it flagged city officials. In fact, posting the drink is a separate violation of the law, so I’m going to have to ticket you for two violations. Here you go. Have a nice day.
This conversation is too bizarre to be real. In fact, it’s fictional. Unfortunately, for a guy named Steve Tennes, the story is all too real. It just involves a different city and a different topic — the topic of same-sex marriage, a cultural context in which the bizarre becomes reality.
City Won’t Let Farmer Serve Food to Everyone
Steve owns and operates Country Mill Farms, an organic apple farm located 22 miles outside of East Lansing in Charlotte, Michigan. Since 2010, his farm has participated in the East Lansing Farmer’s Market. While at the market, Country Mill has always complied with East Lansing laws, including its “Human Relations” law that makes it illegal for public accommodations to discriminate based on sexual orientation and other classifications and to publish any statement indicating someone is unacceptable because of these classifications.
As a Catholic taught to treat everyone with dignity and respect, Steve has gladly served and sold apples to all comers, regardless of their sexual orientation. Steve doesn’t discriminate. Okay, so what’s the problem then? Well, in 2016, Steve posted on the Country Mill Facebook page about his Catholic belief that marriage should be between one man and one woman and that his farm could only host weddings consistent with his faith.
Well, that did it. Normal rules go out the window when that subject comes up. Although his decision violated no law in Charlotte, it did violate East Lansing’s orthodoxy on that issue. After hearing about Steve’s beliefs, East Lansing officials expelled Steve, telling him that Country Mill could no longer participate in the Farmer’s Market. When Steve asked why, the officials responded that County Mill’s “general business practices” outside the city had violated East Lansing’s “anti-discrimination” law. As proof of his wrongdoing, officials pointed Steve to his Facebook post that explained his religious beliefs.
So let’s be clear here. Steve violated no law in Charlotte where he lives and works. He violated no state law. He violated no federal law. In fact, he violated no East Lansing Law. Whether in East Lansing or outside it, Steve sells his apples to anyone. And whether in East Lansing or outside it, Steve has the First Amendment freedom not to promote events that violate his conscience. But when Steve posted his religious beliefs on Facebook from 22 miles outside of East Lansing, the city excluded Steve’s farm from doing business within East Lansing.
There’s a Word for This: Intolerance
East Lansing is so intolerant of Steve’s religious viewpoint that it is willing to monitor Steve’s Facebook posts and punish Steve for what he says and does outside of East Lansing. The city isn’t content to regulate its own citizens. It must reach outside the city to punish the publication of certain viewpoints. The mere existence of certain viewpoints is not acceptable.
Regardless what you think of Steve’s beliefs, do you really want governments punishing people for what they say and do outside city limits? Should Texas have the power to punish businesses for hiring illegal aliens in California and bragging about it on Twitter? Should Mississippi have the power to punish businesses for selling marijuana in Colorado and talking about it on Facebook?
The answer is no. Cities should not have the power to go on seek-and-destroy missions across the country against viewpoints they dislike. Whatever power East Lansing may have inside the city (and that power is bound by the First Amendment), East Lansing certainly cannot punish people for talking about their legal activities outside the city. Such a brazen attempt to punish beliefs violates both the First Amendment, which protects free speech, and the Michigan Home Rule Act of 1909, which forbids cities from regulating outside their city limits.
Based on these protections, Steve had no choice but to sue East Lansing in federal court for violating his rights.
Government Gone Wild
That East Lansing’s actions violate Steve’s rights is no surprise. The surprise is that East Lansing would go to such lengths to punish Steve’s views on marriage. But that is where this new form of “tolerance” takes us. Beyond the farmer’s market. Beyond the city. Beyond the Internet. No dissenters tolerated. Anywhere. Anytime.
But some lines aren’t worth crossing. Governments like East Lansing should stay inside the lines of First Amendment freedoms. Steve’s lawsuit aims to make sure they do, for his sake and yours.