Culture

An Anti-LGBTQ+ Megachurch Sued After Being Called a Hate Group — and Lost


 

An evangelical megachurch had its lawsuit tossed out of court after alleging that it did not deserve to be considered an anti-LGBTQ+ hate group.

Coral Ridge Ministries Media, which operates Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, has earned a spot on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s annual Hate Map, which tracks the activities of a reported 838 hate groups across the country. Also known as D. James Kennedy Ministries, the church made SPLC’s list for opposing marriage equality and referring to “homosexual conduct” as “lawless,” “vile,” and “shameful,” according a 2017 federal lawsuit filed in Alabama, where the pro-LGBTQ+ civil rights organization is based.

U.S. District Court Judge Myron Thompson of the Middle District of Alabama first dismissed the lawsuit in 2019, claiming the SPLC’s right to call Coral Ridge a “hate group” is protected under the first amendment.

The church subsequently lobbied the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals to review the case, accusing SPLC of “defamation” for designating it a hate group and claiming it had suffered harm because of the label. Due to the “hate group” moniker, Amazon denied the church’s application to become a charitable organization on its AmazonSmile program, which allows customers to select a charity to which they can donate 0.5% of their purchase. AmazonSmile charities must not “engage in, support, encourage, or promote intolerance,” according to its website.

Despite its avowed anti-LGBTQ+ beliefs, the church’s legal team has maintained that SPLC’s designation was incorrect. “We continue to be defamed and we continue to be discriminated against,” said attorney David C. Gibbs III in December oral arguments before the 11th Circuit, as Courthouse News first reported. “When you present it as a fact, ‘this is a hate group,’ then they have to be held responsible for that incorrect statement.”

On Wednesday, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s findings in a unanimous ruling. Writing for the majority, Judge Charles R. Wilson said that Coral Ridge’s claims were “insufficient to show that SPLC doubted the truth of its designation.” The opinion also explained that defamation law says that whether or not something is true, an entity must have acted with intended malice toward a public figure for a defamation accusation to be deemed valid. The judges could not see an argument proving SPLC did that.

“Coral Ridge did not sufficiently plead facts that give rise to a reasonable inference that SPLC ‘actually entertained serious doubts as to the veracity’ of its hate group definition, and that definition’s application to Coral Ridge, or that SPLC was ‘highly aware’ that the definition and its application was ‘probably false,”’ Wilson wrote.

Coral Ridge also accused both SPLC and Amazon of religious discrimination based on Title II of the Civil Rights Act, which says individuals cannot be discriminated against in areas of public accommodation, such as restaurants and hotels, based on religion. The circuit judges dismissed those claims as well, claiming that forcing AmazonSmile to accept donations on Code Ridge’s behalf would force the company to “donate to organizations it does not support.”

Coral Ridge was founded by the late D. James Kennedy, a once wildly popular televangelist who authored the 2004 book What’s Wrong With Same-Sex Marriage? The church made headlines this past March when the city’s out gay mayor, Dean Trantalis, issued an official proclamation recognizing its 60th anniversary, despite the fact that Coral Ridge has a history of performing anti-LGBTQ+ conversion therapy. The harmful, discredited practice has been banned in 20 states and likened to torture by the United Nations.

Equality Florida, a statewide advocacy organization, said in a statement earlier this year that Coral Ridge has shown no evidence that it has made any progress on LGBTQ+ issues.



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