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Catholic orchard owner speaks out after court win over liberal city that barred him from farmer's market

A federal court sided with Steve Tennes, owner of Country Mill Farms in Michigan, after he was ousted from a local farmer's market for his religious beliefs on marriage.

A federal district court ruled Monday in favor of a Michigan fruit farmer who was ousted from a local farmer's market after he said he wouldn't host same-sex weddings at his farm. The decision may signal the end of what has been a six-year legal battle.

Steve Tennes, owner of Country Mill Farms, sued East Lansing in 2017 after officials chose to exclude him from the city's farmers market. Tennes, a devout Catholic, apparently was targeted by city officials after saying on Facebook that he follows the Catholic Church’s teachings about marriage, including when he participates in weddings at his family’s farm.

On Monday, a U.S. District Court judge for the Western District of Michigan ruled that Tennes and his family were improperly "forced to choose between following their religious beliefs and a government benefit for which they were otherwise qualified." 

The court said the city of East Lansing violated the Tennes' free exercise rights protected in the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment. "The reason is simple: denying a person an equal share of the rights, benefits, and privileges enjoyed by other citizens because of her faith discourages religious activity," the ruling states.

WHY I AM DEFENDING THE FARMER TOSSED OUT OF A MICHIGAN FARMER’S MARKET FOR HIS TRADITIONAL VIEWS ON MARRIAGE

Country Mill Farms is a 120-acre, second-generation family farm in Charlotte, Michigan. Steve and his wife, Bridget Tennes, are both U.S. military veterans and served four years on active duty. 

Since 2010, Country Mill sold organic produce and other products at the East Lansing Farmer's Market. But in 2017, the city adopted a new policy that used a discretionary system of individual assessments to "target" Country Mill, according to the lawsuit filed by lawyers at Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). 

Country Mill is located in Charlotte, 22 miles from East Lansing, and well outside the city’s boundaries and jurisdiction, the lawsuit says. 

The initial decision to sue the city of East Lansing, Tennes says, was "tough."

"This was a tough decision we had to make seven years ago when we were faced with the choice of providing for our family like we always had, or walking away from our religious beliefs. And as parents and as veterans, that was a very tough decision to make," Tennes told Fox News Digital in an interview.

"But we're glad that we were able to go forward with this and the court has come out with a strong ruling that helps not just our family, but really people of all backgrounds and beliefs to realize that the government can't choose to punish some people just because they don't like their beliefs," he said. 

SENATE PASSES SAME-SEX MARRIAGE BILL WITH BIPARTISAN SUPPORT

The decision by East Lansing officials came after Tennes on Aug. 24, 2016, shared in a Facebook post that – based on his Catholic belief that marriage is a sacramental union between one man and one woman – he honors his religious belief when hosting and participating in weddings at Country Mill. 

East Lansing has defended its position in court, but through a six-year legal battle has continually lost. Fox News Digital asked the city whether it plans to appeal Monday's decision, but did not receive an answer in time for publication. 

SUPREME COURT HANDS RELIGIOUS FREEDOM WIN TO POSTAL WORKER WHO REFUSED TO WORK ON SUNDAY

"We're just grateful for the court's ruling, and hopeful that everyone can see that whether they believe with Steve or not about marriage, this is a ruling about each one of us being able to live according to our religious beliefs. And that's the freedom that everyone should want," Kate Anderson, senior counsel for ADF, told Fox News Digital.

Tennes says he looks forward to putting the legal battle behind him, and serving people "of all backgrounds" at the farmer's market and at his farm. 

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