Court: First Amendment protects "hate group" label

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — A federal judge has ruled that a liberal advocacy group has a First Amendment right to call a Christian ministry a hate group for its opposition to homosexuality.

U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson, in a 141-page decision issued late Thursday, threw out a complaint filed by the Florida-based Coral Ridge Ministries Media Inc. against the Southern Poverty Law Center of Montgomery.

Coral Ridge, also called James Kennedy Ministries of Fort Lauderdale, sued the nonprofit law center, Amazon and others in 2017 because it wasn't included in a program that lets Amazon customers donate to nonprofit groups. The suit said the refusal was because the law center had labeled the ministry a hate group for its stance against homosexual behavior.

The judge ruled that the liberal watchdog organization has a free-speech right to make the claim, but he didn't address whether the ministry is a hate organization.

Attorneys representing the ministry did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment. In a statement, the Southern Poverty Law Center said the decision is a win for groups that want to "share their opinions and educate the public."

"Any organization we list as a hate group is free to disagree with us about our designation, but this ruling underscores that the designation is constitutionally protected speech and not defamatory," said Karen Baynes-Dunning, interim president of the organization.

Founded in 1974 by D. James Kennedy, an evangelist and broadcaster, Coral Ridge produced a weekly television called "The Coral Ridge Hour" that once had an audience of 3 million people in 200 countries, the judge's ruling said. Now called "Truths that Transform," the show often criticizes homosexuality and gay rights.

The show's website says the law center "recklessly classified disciples of the Gospel as purveyors of hate."

Thompson's decision came days after another federal judge threw out a separate lawsuit against the Southern Poverty Law Center by the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, a conservative organization which claimed the liberal group violated federal racketeering laws by labeling it a hate group.