Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Court Refuses To Dismiss Constitutional Challenges To City's Civil Rights Law

In Country Mill Farms v. City of East Lansing, 2017 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 191658 (WD MI, Nov. 16, 2017), a Michigan federal district court refused to dismiss a number of plaintiff's constitutional challenges to a city's civil rights ordinance. Vendor Guidelines for East Lansing's Farmers' Market required vendors to comply with the civil rights ordinance as a general business practice. Country Mill Farms was denied a vendor permit because, while it hosts weddings at its orchard, it refuses on religious grounds to host same-sex weddings.  It announced its policy in a Facebook post.

The court allowed Country Mill to move ahead with an overbreadth challenge to a portion of the ordinance, saying in part:
The City is wrong that the Ordinance regulates only conduct. The Ordinance also regulates speech. Section 22-32 of the Code defines "harass" as including "communication which refers to an individual protected under this article." Section 22-31 prohibits harassment of any person based on a list of characteristics. And, Section 22-35(b)(2) prohibits the printing and publishing of certain statements and signs based on their content.
The court also refused to dismiss plaintiff's Free Exercise and Establishment Clause challenges (as well as an unconstitutional conditions challenge), saying in part:
Plaintiffs have alleged sufficient facts to state a plausible claim for a violation of their rights under the Free Exercise Clause. Plaintiffs have pleaded facts to support a claim that the City enacted a generally applicable and neutral policy, which was then used to target Plaintiffs' religiously-motivated conduct. The Ordinance did not apply to Plaintiffs in 2016. After the City learned that Plaintiffs would not hold same-sex weddings on their farms because of Plaintiffs' religious beliefs, the City amended the Vendor Guidelines to incorporate the neutral and generally applicable law and applied it to Plaintiffs. As pled, the City's action is a "veiled cover for targeting belief or a faith-based practice." ...
Plaintiffs have pled sufficient facts to state a plausible claim under the Establishment Clause. The facts in the complaint allow the Court to infer that the predominant purpose of the changes to the Vendor Guidelines was motivated by the disapproval of Plaintiffs' religious beliefs.
Various other challenges to the ordinance were dismissed. (See prior related posting.)