When a Christian ministry is designated as a “hate group” by a left-leaning organization like the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), and other organizations rely on that designation to deny the ministry fund-raising opportunities, isn’t that “defamation” that is redressable in a lawsuit?
That’s the question Coral Ridge Ministries Media, Inc. (Coral Ridge), a Christian ministry founded by the late D. James Kennedy, is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to address in an appeal it recently filed with the justices after losing in the lower federal courts.
The case stems from the SPLC’s infamous “hate map” which has historically listed the Ku Klux Klan and racist groups for decades. SPLC was founded as a civil rights organization in 1971, but of late it has taken criticism for its adoption of LGBT issues as a fundraising priority. It is this latter focus that has resulted in many orthodox Christian organizations being labeled as “hate” groups, including Coral Ridge, Alliance Defending Freedom, the Family Research Council, Liberty Counsel, and the Pacific Justice Institute, among others.
Because of the SPLC’s founding and primary mission as a civil rights organization, it has gained a lot of influence. At one point, even the U.S. Department of Defense used the SPLC’s training materials on hate groups, before objections were raised to its anti-Christian nature.
A “hate group” designation from SPLC has real-word ramifications for ministries. In Coral Ridge’s case, the charitable giving program at Amazon.com called “Amazon Smile” removed Coral Ridge as a potential recipient of donations due to the SPLC’s designation.
You would think that given those facts, Coral Ridge would have had a slam-dunk case against the SPLC for defamation – in this case, for libel. In the state of Alabama, where SPLC’s office is located and where Coral Ridge originally filed its lawsuit, it should have been. But it hasn’t worked out that way.
A federal magistrate and the two federal courts to hear the case thus far have ruled that Coral Ridge is a “public figure” with a higher evidentiary hurdle to clear than is required in ordinary defamation cases involving non-public figures. In reaching those decisions, the lower courts relied on a Supreme Court decision from 1964, New York Times v. Sullivan, which created the “public figure” doctrine. Sullivan requires Coral Ridge to prove the SPLC acted with “actual malice.”
So, why is Coral Ridge asking the high court to take its appeal? The Sullivan rule conflicts with the common law of defamation and the original understanding of the First Amendment, according to the ministry’s legal papers filed with the court. It has now become, as Coral Ridge asserts, a “license to libel.”
“This petition presents an important question this Court has struggled with for the better part of fifty years: Is it time to reconsider Sullivan and the actual malice standard it imposes on every public figure and, sometimes, non-public figures that happen to be thrust into the limelight? The answer to that question is resoundingly ‘yes,’” Coral Ridge argues.
“Constrained by this Court’s opinion in Sullivan and its progeny, the Magistrate Judge, District Court, and Eleventh Circuit below absolved Respondent of any liability for its intentional impugning the Ministry’s name and reputation in the public square.
“While Sullivan may have been appropriate for a season [sic]. Seasons change. And the time for Sullivan to fade into the annals of history has come.”
And, we would hasten to add, the increasing tendency of the Left to smear Christians and religious organizations as “haters” in order impugn the Gospel and suppress the valuable work that such organizations perform in their communities needs to be challenged. This appeal may be a good vehicle to do just that.
In fact, two current justices on the high court, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, are already on record this year as suggesting that Sullivan be re-visited.
The case is Coral Ridge Ministries Media v. Southern Poverty Law Center.
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