11th Cir. Rejects Christian Ministry’s Religious Discrimination Claim Against Amazon

On Wednesday, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed findings made by a Middle District of Alabama judge dismissing a Christian ministry and media corporation’s defamation claim against the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and religious discrimination claim against Amazon.com and the AmazonSmile Foundation. The plaintiff-appellant, Coral Ridge Ministries Media, filed suit after AmazonSmile denied its application for charitable eligibility.

The opinion explained that AmazonSmile is a tax-exempt corporate affiliate of Amazon.com that allows customers to buy products and with every purchase, donate 0.5% of the price to a charity of the customer’s choosing. Coral Ridge’s application was reportedly denied because the charity appeared on a “Hate Map” produced by defendant SPLC, an Alabama-based non-profit.

The SPLC’s online Hate Map reportedly lists entities that the organization characterizes as hate groups, and in this case listed Coral Ridge as anti-LGBTQ. Though Coral Ridge acknowledged that it opposes homosexual conduct, it denied that it is a hate group.

In its opinion, the Eleventh Circuit rejected Coral Ridge’s defamation claim on the ground that the plaintiff-appellant did not plead actual malice. To succeed on this cause of action, Coral Ridge needed to show that the SPLC acted with knowledge that its inclusion of Coral Ridge in the hate map “‘was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.’” The judges reasoned that Coral Ridge did not allege facts permitting an inference that the SPLC’s “subjective state of mind was sufficiently culpable.”

As to the claim against Amazon, the appellate panel agreed with the lower court that Coral Ridge’s interpretation of the law would “essentially forc[e] Amazon to donate to organizations it does not support.” The court held that Amazon’s choice of what charities are eligible to receive donations through AmazonSmile is expressive conduct. As such, Coral Ridge’s proposed application of Title II of the Civil Rights Act would impermissibly modify the content of Amazon’s expression by compelling donation to an entity it does not wish to promote, the opinion reasoned.

Coral Ridge is represented by The National Center for Life and Liberty, SPLC by Copeland Franco Screws & Gill, and Amazon by  Davis Wright Tremaine LLP and Lightfoot Franklin & White LLC.