Williamsburg-based charity website sued over hate group labels on nonprofits

Williamsburg-based charity website GuideStar USA Inc. is being sued after adding — and later removing — "hate group" labels to more than four dozen nonprofits.

Earlier this year, the website flagged 46 nonprofits as having been identified as "hate groups" by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Banners at the top of the nonprofits' profiles on the portal linked back to the SPLC site, according to The Associated Press.

GuideStar, which is based in New Town, maintains a database of 1.7 million U.S. charities including financial information, their mission and leadership.

Florida-based Liberty Counsel Inc. was one of those flagged organizations; the SPLC names it as an anti-LGBT hate group.

The legal defense organization's website describes itself as "restoring the culture by advancing religious freedom, the sanctity of human life and the family." It also has offices in Lynchburg and Washington D.C., according to its website.

Liberty Counsel is now suing GuideStar, claiming the label was slanderous and harmed its reputation, according to a news release on the nonprofit's website. It filed the suit in federal court Wednesday.

"The 'hate group' label is false and dangerous," founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel Mat Staver stated in the release. "GuideStar will now have to answer for its reckless, defamatory, and harmful political labeling."

Others flagged by Guidestar include The Federation for American Immigration Reform, the Family Research Council and the American Family Association.

Guidestar removed the labels June 23 after backlash, according to a news release posted to the company's website. The release cited threats against staff members.

"With this development in mind — driven by both our commitment to objectivity and our concerns for our staff's wellbeing — we have decided to remove the SPLC annotations from these 46 organizations for the time being," the release stated.

In a statement posted to the SPLC website June 28, the law center's president, Richard Cohen, said the civil rights advocacy organization stands by its designation of Liberty Counsel.

"Liberty Counsel is a group that has consistently called LGBT people 'immoral, unnatural and self-destructive.' It has a track record of attempting to criminalize homosexual conduct and to legalize discrimination against the LGBT community," Cohen said. "There is nothing 'pro-family' about dehumanizing LGBT people. This lawsuit and other recent attacks against GuideStar are simply attempts to distract the public from Liberty Counsel's hateful agenda."

The GuideStar release noted the hate group information is still available upon request.

In the introduction of the complaint filed with the court, Liberty Counsel makes clear it takes issue not just with GuideStar using SPLC's designation, but with SPLC's label in the first place.

"Liberty Counsel brings this action against GuideStar for its tortious and unlawful adoption and republication of the Southern Poverty Law Center's ("SPLC") defamatory, false, and misleading designation of Liberty Counsel as a "hate group," based on nothing more than its Christian viewpoint on matters of religious liberty, the sanctity of life, human sexuality, marriage, and family values," the complaint reads.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Williams can be reached by phone at 757-345-2341.

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