A request by a Christian hate group asking the Supreme Court for help in getting people to stop calling it a “hate group” has finally ended in failure. The Court said on Monday that it would not take up the case, with only Clarence Thomas dissenting.
It’s the latest and final twist in a pointless battle that was fought by Coral Ridge Ministries (formerly called Truth in Action and also known as D. James Kennedy Ministries) after they were included in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s 2010 list of “Active Anti-LGBT Hate Groups.” (Kennedy himself died in 2007.)
The ministry said in its initial 2017 lawsuit that being put on the SPLC’s list hurt them financially because Amazon (also a defendant) refused to allow them to fundraise via AmazonSmile precisely because they’re considered a “hate group.” GuideStar (also a defendant) temporarily labeled SPLC hate groups as such on their website, and the ministry said that also hurt fundraising.
They insisted there was nothing hateful about them.
The basis for SPLC’s declaration that the Ministry is a hate group is that the Ministry espouses and supports Biblical morals and principles concerning human sexuality. It was on these Biblical principles that this Nation was founded and built.
Based on GuideStar’s and SPLC’s statements, they have conspired to publish written information in interstate commerce that subjects the Ministry to disgrace, ridicule, odium, and contempt, by declaring the Ministry a hate group. Under Alabama law, this conduct constitutes defamation, specifically libel per se.
The SPLC knows that its publication of its claims that the Ministry is a Hate Group both in the Hate Map and in the SPLC Transmissions are false and that these publications defame the Ministry. The SPLC intended the Hate Map and SPLC Transmissions to be statements of fact, not statements Of opinion.
It was always a weak attempt at alleging defamation. If the SPLC was going after all ministries that espoused “Biblical morals and principles concerning human sexuality,” then damn near every evangelical church would have been on the list. They’re not. The SPLC doesn’t go after groups that merely have faith-based objections to homosexuality or LGBTQ rights. In this case, they were going after groups that went above and beyond that.
Here’s how the SPLC explained why the groups on their list were being called out as opposed to other ones:
Many of [the Religious Right’s] leaders have engaged in the crudest type of name-calling, describing LGBT people as “perverts” with “filthy habits” who seek to snatch the children of straight parents and “convert” them to gay sex. They have disseminated disparaging “facts” about gays that are simply untrue — assertions that are remarkably reminiscent of the way white intellectuals and scientists once wrote about the “bestial” black man and his supposedly threatening sexuality.
The point is that this was not some cheap attack on conservative Christian values. This was about outright bigotry and lies. Groups that spread harmful lies about LGBTQ people to achieve their goals were, according to the SPLC, hateful. So why was Kennedy’s ministry on there? Here’s an example of what SPLC said on its site:
Over the years, Kennedy emphasized anti-gay rhetoric, particularly in his TV ministry. He recommended as “essential” the virulent work of R.J. Rushdoony… who believed practicing gays should be executed. In an especially nasty 1989 edition of a [Coral Ridge Ministries] newsletter, Kennedy ran photographs of children along with the tagline, “Sex With Children? Homosexuals Say Yes!”
Gay people deserve death. Gay people are pedophiles. That was hate that went beyond the Bible. It’s hard to argue the SPLC was defaming the ministry when the reason they were on the hate group list was because of their own anti-gay propaganda.
The ministry, by the way, also created a documentary against the SPLC called Profit$ of Hate: The Southern Poverty Law Center.
But the problem with the lawsuit was always that the description of the ministry as hateful would be accurate with or without the SPLC. When a ministry actively spreads lies about gay people — claiming homosexuality is some sort of disorder that can be cured, that it’s a perversion akin to pedophilia and bestiality, that there’s a “Gay Agenda” trying to convert children — it’s only fair to describe those false claims and hateful undercurrents accurately.
That’s why they lost that case in a lower court. That’s why the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit unanimously upheld that ruling last year, saying the defamation claim failed because there was no evidence the SPLC “acted with actual malice.”
Last year, the ministry asked the Supreme Court to step in and lower the bar for defamation lawsuits. In general, winning a defamation case requires you to prove the other side acted with “actual malice.” You have to show they knew they were lying but spread the lie anyway.
In its appeal brief, DJKM, represented by the National Center for Law and Liberty (NCLL), asks the Court to reconsider its 1964 decision in New York Times v. Sullivan, a ruling which created a high bar for “public figures” to win defamation suits. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected DJKM’s defamation suit based on the Times v. Sullivan standard.
Sullivan requires “public figures” to demonstrate “actual malice” on the part of defendants in defamation suits. In so doing, bringing a civil suit that seeks damages for defamation brought by a person in the public eye becomes an almost impossible task, depriving that individual of the opportunity to defend their reputation.
“That gives reputational terrorists like the SPLC carte blanche to attack and destroy its ideological enemies,” said Dr. Frank Wright, President and CEO of DJKM. “We are asking the Court to give us and similarly situated ministries and individuals the ability to bring a claim for reputational harm that is currently denied under Sullivan.”
(Nothing screams “We’re the rational ones” like describing a civil rights group as “terrorists.”)
This is where the Supreme Court’s rejection of the case drew a lot media attention. In his dissent, Thomas wrote that the “actual malice” standard needed to be revisited. Doing so, however, would put most major media outlets in the crossfires of anyone who didn’t like their coverage. In practice, it could prevent mainstream news outlets from accurately reporting on rich, powerful, often-Republican people. It’s no wonder lowering the bar on defamation is an item on every Federalist Society lawyer’s bucket list. Not surprisingly, many Christian groups also filed amicus briefs urging the Court to revisit and lower those standards.
The irony is that, by losing the case for good, the Streisand Effect remains as strong as ever. This entire case has been a years-long reminder that Coral Ridge Ministries preaches hate. So do all the other conservative groups spreading the same lies about LGBTQ people.
Remember: The power of the SPLC’s designation has never been that people might call this ministry “hateful.” (If that’s all this was, the SPLC wouldn’t get anywhere.) What makes it stick is that the SPLC has the receipts. They document why they believe the ministry crosses the line. People can see for themselves why the ministry’s actions are hateful and not just run-of-the-mill Christian bigotry. A court has no business telling someone what is and isn’t hateful, and the SPLC isn’t just randomly picking and choosing Christian groups to add to the list.
The ministry’s argument was never that they were being misquoted or taken out of context. It’s that they felt it was unfair the SPLC could call them a “hate group.” Too damn bad. This was always a frivolous lawsuit and the Supreme Court finally gave it the respect it deserved: none.
(Large portions of this article were published earlier)