Florida Megachurch Asks Panel to Revive Challenge to Hate Group Label

Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, a megachurch in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, that is home to Coral Ridge Ministries. (By Jimmy Baikovicius)

(CN) — A Florida ministry urged an 11th Circuit panel Tuesday to hold the Southern Poverty Law Center and Amazon responsible for what it called a discriminatory labeling of the church as a hate group, a designation that has prevented it from fundraising through Amazon’s charitable website.

“We continue to be defamed and we continue to be discriminated against,” attorney David C. Gibbs III told the panel during virtual arguments Tuesday morning. “When you present it as a fact, ‘this is a hate group,’ then they have to be held responsible for that incorrect statement.”

A federal judge last year rejected claims of defamation and religious discrimination brought by the Fort Lauderdale-based Coral Ridge Ministries, which does business as D. James Kennedy Ministries. The three-year-old lawsuit came after the ministry found itself on a hate map maintained by the SPLC, which also wrote about the ministry in a November 2010 article titled, “18 Anti-Gay Groups and Their Propaganda.”

It was that designation, the ministry claims, that prompted Amazon to deny its application to fundraise as a charitable organization through its AmazonSmile program, a decision it maintained on Tuesday amounts to religious discrimination.

“Why can’t Amazon as a private organization exercise its own First Amendment rights to support causes that it prefers to support?” U.S. Circuit Judge Britt Grant, a Donald Trump appointee, asked Gibbs. “Certainly groups all over the country prefer different causes and different perspectives on issues – why can’t Amazon operate in the same way as any other entity in that regard?”

Gibbs, an attorney for the ministry who also serves as president of the National Center for Life and Liberty, fought back and said it wasn’t Amazon’s decision to select which charity a customer chooses to support.

“If it’s their money they can,” he responded. “When you set up a program as a privilege and advantage of doing business, and they take the money as fiduciaries from the customer, that is not Amazon’s decision, that’s the customer’s decision.”

He added, “The reality is they have set up a fiduciary model that has tacit discrimination built into it.”

Ambika Kumar Doran, a partner with the Seattle office of Davis Wright Tremaine, told the judges that her client Amazon shouldn’t be told “who it should donate money to, or who it must donate money to.”

“And for these two reasons the court should affirm the district court’s decision,” Doran said.

According to the AmazonSmile program’s website, eligible charity organizations must be registered with the IRS as a nonprofit located in the United States. They also cannot support violence, illegal activities or intolerance.

Gibbs said it was the SPLC that was “hateful toward people who believe the Bible” and claimed in court documents that the ministry’s views on LGBT issues are “inextricably intertwined” with its religious beliefs as to what the Bible says about human sexuality.

But in dismissing the lawsuit last year, U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson wrote that the SPLC’s designation of the group was protected by the First Amendment, and that there was no evidence to conclude that Amazon “intentionally discriminated against it because of religion.”

The 11th Circuit judges did not indicate when they would decide on the case.

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