James Kennedy Ministries is taking legal action after being excluded from Amazon’s Smile program for charitable donations.
In a lawsuit filed in the United States District Court, the ministry is suing Amazon, the AmazonSmile program and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) for defamation, damage to the ministry’s trademark, negligence and civil rights violations.
The evangelical ministry was excluded from AmazonSmile because it has been designated as a hate group by SPLC. And the reason for that designation is simply that the ministry holds to the Biblical teaching that homosexual behavior is a sin.
“D. James Kennedy Ministries has been falsely branded a ‘hate group’ by the Southern Poverty Law Center for nothing more than subscribing to the teachings of the historic Christian faith,” said Frank Wright, president and CEO of D. James Kennedy Ministries. “In this legal action we seek a trial by a jury of our peers, to preserve our own rights under the law and to defend the religious free speech rights of all Americans.”
AmazonSmile allows people to designate a charitable organization to receive a donation equal to .5 percent of eligible purchases from Amazon. But Amazon blindly adopts SPLC’s list of hate groups without any independent review, and any group on the list is automatically ineligible for the AmazonSmile program.
Amazon isn’t alone in helping to spread SPLC’s spurious accusations. In recent years, many news outlets have also accepted SPLC’s list of hate groups at face value, often publishing articles about the list without considering the source or investigating how SPLC determines which groups to include.
Many of the groups listed by SPLC certainly would qualify as hate groups by any reasonable standard—the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis and racist skinheads, for example. The organization’s website says, “We publish investigative reports, train law enforcement officers, and share key intelligence and offer expert analysis to the media and public.”
That may sound impressive, but there is a problem with taking SPLC’s findings as authoritative: It is not a neutral, objective organization. Because it is hostile to Biblical standards of marriage and sexuality, SPLC freely labels several evangelical organizations as hate groups simply because they believe homosexuality is wrong.
Among the other organizations SPLC lists as hate groups are Alliance Defending Freedom, American Family Association, Family Research Council, Liberty Counsel, Probe Ministries and Mission: America.
“It is intellectually and morally dishonest to group mainstream Christian ministries with neo-Nazis and violent militias,” Wright said. “Yet this is exactly what the SPLC does, and too often the news media are uncritically parroting them.”
Attorney David C. Gibbs III of the National Center for Life and Liberty is representing D. James Kennedy Ministries in the lawsuit. Gibbs told Decisionthat the case is based on concepts that have been in the law for hundreds of years regarding defamation and libel.
“We believe SPLC is engaging in reputational terrorism,” Gibbs said. “They’re trying to attack and destroy organizations they don’t agree with. And so, they’re trying to redefine terms. And in redefining the terms, they’re trying to ignore what would be the common understanding of hate groups.”
In defining hate groups, SPLC’s website states, “All hate groups have beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics.”
The complaint calls that definition “intentionally false and deceptive,” pointing to several legal precedents that define a hate group as one whose activities include violence and crime.
“SPLC’s definition of ‘hate group’ is so far outside of how hate groups are legally and culturally understood that SPLC’s definition is simply and patently false,” the complaint says. Additionally, the complaint points out that SPLC itself participates in the AmazonSmile program, causing “an inherent conflict of interest in determining which other charities may be admitted to the program.”
The complaint also alleges that SPLC’s use of the ministry’s trademark in its hate list has caused injury to the ministry’s commercial interests, a violation of the Lanham Act.
Indeed, it appears that the damage was intentional. Former SPLC spokesman and senior fellow Mark Potok said in 2007, “Sometimes the press will describe us as monitoring hate groups. I want to say plainly that our aim in life is to destroy these groups, completely destroy them.”
Finally, the ministry’s complaint accuses Amazon and AmazonSmile of negligence for adopting SPLC’s hate group designation without its own review; and for violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the ground of religion, among other things.
If the case goes forward, Gibbs hopes to have a jury trial in Alabama before the end of 2018.
“I think it could be interesting how that jury might rule,” Gibbs said. “My hope and prayer is that they would see this for what it is—that they would say people’s reputations in today’s world are worthy of protection, and we’re not going to allow this reputational terrorism to continue.”