A federal appeals court has ruled against a prominent Florida-based ministry that alleged it was defamed and faced religious discrimination when labeled a “hate group” because of its views on homosexuality.
A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit that Coral Ridge Ministries Media filed in 2017 against the Southern Poverty Law Center, Amazon.com and the AmazonSmile Foundation.
The AmazonSmile Foundation is affiliated with Amazon.com. Through it, Amazon donates a portion of the price of purchases to charities selected by customers.
Coral Ridge, a nonprofit organization based in Fort Lauderdale, sought to benefit from the program but was denied admission because it had been tagged by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group over its positions on LGBTQ issues, according to court documents. In denying Coral Ridge’s participation, Amazon relied on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s “Hate Map,” which lists alleged hate groups across the country.
In the lawsuit, Coral Ridge argued that it had been defamed by the Southern Poverty Law Center and had been subject to religious discrimination by Amazon.com and the AmazonSmile Foundation in violation of a civil rights law.
But in a 141-page ruling in 2019, U.S. District Judge Myron H. Thompson dismissed the case.
“The court should not be understood as even suggesting that Coral Ridge is or is not a ‘hate group.’ It has merely held that SPLC’s labeling of the group as such is protected by the First Amendment and that the Amazon defendants’ exclusion of the group from receiving donations through the AmazonSmile charitable-giving program does not violate … the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” wrote Thompson, who is based in Alabama, where the case was filed and where the Southern Poverty Law Center is headquartered.
Coral Ridge, which is also known as D. James Kennedy Ministries, appealed Thompson’s ruling. In a January 2020 filing at the Atlanta-based appeals court, it disputed that it is a hate group, while acknowledging its views on homosexuality.
“The ministry is a Florida nonprofit Christian organization. A small portion of its message includes teaching about the many biblical passages that prohibit homosexual conduct,” the appeal said. “Because the Bible is the root and source of all true Christian teaching, the ministry’s religious beliefs and its position on homosexual conduct are inextricably intertwined.”
But in the 15-page opinion Wednesday, the appellate-court panel upheld the dismissal and focused heavily on First Amendment issues.
“The district court dismissed Coral Ridge’s defamation claim on the grounds that the term hate group has a ‘highly debatable and ambiguous meaning’ and thus is not provable as false,” said the opinion, written by Judge Charles Wilson and joined by Judges Britt Grant and Gerald Tjoflat. “Alternatively, the court found that Coral Ridge did not sufficiently plead that SPLC acted with actual malice. Because we agree that Coral Ridge failed to adequately plead actual malice, we affirm the dismissal of Coral Ridge’s defamation claim.”
The opinion also relied on the First Amendment in rejecting Coral Ridge’s arguments that Amazon had violated the federal civil-rights law through religious discrimination. Wilson wrote, in part, that “we have no problem finding that Amazon engages in expressive conduct when it decides which charities to support through the AmazonSmile program.”