An anti-LGBTQ+ religious organization has once again lost its challenge to its designation as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Florida-based Coral Ridge Ministries, also known as D. James Kennedy Ministries, had sued the SPLC, a progressive watchdog group, for defamation, and Amazon and its AmazonSmile Foundation for religious discrimination. A U.S. District Court in Alabama, where SPLC is based, dismissed the suit in 2019, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit upheld the dismissal Wednesday.
The SPLC did not act with “actual malice,” that is, knowingly spread false information, when it characterized Coral Ridge Ministries as a hate group, a unanimous three-judge panel of the Eleventh Circuit ruled.
“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,’” Judge Charles Wilson wrote for the panel.
The hate group designation had led Amazon to declare Coral Ridge Ministries ineligible for its AmazonSmile program, through which the AmazonSmile Foundation donates a portion of customer spending to the customer’s chosen nonprofit organization. Amazon states that nonprofits are not eligible for the program if they “engage in, support, encourage, or promote intolerance, hate, terrorism, violence, money laundering, or other illegal activities.”
Coral Ridge argued that it did not meet the definition of a hate group. But “Coral Ridge does not plead any facts that would allow us to infer that SPLC doubted the veracity of its own definition of the term,” Wilson wrote.
The ministry also contended that the AmazonSmile program was a place of public accommodation and therefore violated federal civil rights law against discrimination in public accommodations. The court did not agree, and it noted that forcing Amazon to donate to organizations it found objectionable would be a violation of the constitutional free speech rights of the company and its foundation.
Coral Ridge Ministries grew out of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale and promotes a far-right Christian message through radio, TV, the internet, and other media. Its website contains many anti-LGBTQ+ articles, with headlines including “Sexual Anarchy Puts Religious Liberty at Risk,” “Freedom From Homosexuality Through the Gospel,” and “Why Should Transgender ‘Equality’ Overrule Feminine Modesty?” The current content on its home page includes a video with the message that “gender confusion endangers freedom and destroys lives” and a promotion for anti-trans books and DVDs. It now uses the name D. James Kennedy Ministries, in recognition of its late founder, but is referred to as Coral Ridge Ministries in legal documents in the case.
Kennedy was notorious for his anti-LGBTQ+ activity. He was a founding board member for the Moral Majority, the influential Christian right group formed by the Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr. in 1979. He wrote many books, including What’s Wrong With Same-Sex Marriage? in 2004, in which he claimed “a tiny fraction of our population is on the verge of redefining the institution of marriage for all of us.” He endorsed a comic book titled Homosexuality: Legitimate, Alternate Deathstyle and wrote in his newsletter that gay people approved of sex with children. He died in 2007.
Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church was in the news earlier this year when the Fort Lauderdale City Commission and Mayor Dean Trantalis, who is gay, presented a proclamation in March honoring the church and its affiliated school on their 60th and 50th anniversaries, respectively. Critics brought up the anti-LGBTQ+ teachings of the church, which is affiliated with the conservative Presbyterian Church in America, not the LGBTQ-affirming Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). The church and Coral Ridge Ministries were once the same entity but broke into separate organizations in the late 1990s. They still share a campus.
In April, Trantalis told the South Florida Sun Sentinel that he made the proclamation because “to me, building bridges is more important than holding on to old grudges.” He acknowledged having picketed the church over its anti-LGBTQ+ stances, but he and its lead pastor, Rob Pacienza, issued a statement in April committing to building bridges. Some LGBTQ+ activists and allies praised the move, while others pointed out that the church still preaches homophobic and transphobic dogma.