A federal judge in Alabama has dismissed a defamation lawsuit initiated by a church ministry against a self-proclaimed watchdog organization for labeling the ministry as a “hate group.”
Several years ago the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) started including Christian ministries who adhere to a biblical view of human sexuality and marriage as “hate groups” on its “hate map” alongside the KKK and neo-nazi groups. It was seen by most as an attempt to boost fundraising at the organization, which now has hundreds of millions of dollars in assets.
Coral Ridge Ministries Media, aka D. James Kennedy Ministries (Coral Ridge), one of those organizations targeted by the SPLC, took exception.
Then retail giant Amazon.com refused Coral Ridge’s request to participate in its “AmazonSmile” program that allows customers to designate nonprofit organizations to receive a portion of the proceeds from every purchase made. It did so because of the SPLC “hate group” designation. Coral Ridge decided that it was time to do something.
In August 2017 the ministry filed a lawsuit alleging that the SPLC had defamed it, and that Amazon had discriminated against it on the basis of religion, in violation of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Defamation as a legal concept is “a false and unprivileged statement of fact that is harmful to someone’s reputation.”
In his order dismissing those claims, Judge Myron Thompson noted that there is no common understanding of the meaning of the term “hate group,” which “is reinforced by the lack of a definition for the term in dictionaries…”
With no bright-line definition for the court to apply, the “statement of fact” component of a defamation claim is difficult to prove. The court also found that Coral Ridge is a “public figure” for defamation law purposes, and therefore must accept criticism that private plaintiffs may not be required to absorb.
The judge also rejected Coral Ridge’s allegations against Amazon, noting that the AmazonSmile program doesn’t fit the Civil Rights Act’s definition of “service, privilege or advantage, etc. protected by the statute’s anti-discrimination prohibition.” The court further found that Coral Ridge had not plausibly alleged that Amazon had discriminated against it based on religion.
This litigation was always going to be problematic for Coral Ridge. Under the First Amendment, you are permitted to call someone a nasty name so long as you don’t cross the line and make a verifiably false statement of fact that injures someone’s reputation. Accusing someone of committing a crime, for example, when they did not, would constitute defamation. Calling them “despicable” or a “hater,” on the other hand, would not.
The continuing problem, though, is that the SPLC’s “hate map” is still used without question by some in the news media, government and private entities as some sort of “official” designation that means something other than what it really is – the SPLC’s subjective opinion on a matter of much public debate and disagreement.
As a result, people of faith and religious organizations continue to be misrepresented. It’s grossly unfair. And dangerous, given the shooting incident at Family Research Council’s (FRC) facilities in 2012 which was directly attributable to SPLC’s “hate” designation bestowed on FRC.
Please pray for Coral Ridge and other ministries and organizations that have been unfairly targeted by the SPLC. The courts may not be our defenders when we are subjected to name-calling for His name’s sake, but there is One who hears and blesses us. (Luke 6:22)
Photo from the SPLC