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An Ann Arbor-based law center filed a federal civil rights lawsuit Thursday against Attorney General Dana Nessel and Michigan Department of Civil Rights Director Agustin Arbulu for a policy it says unjustly targets the group for its political stances.

The American Freedom Law Center’s lawsuit asks the Western District of Michigan U.S. District Court to rule Nessel and Arbulu’s policies unconstitutional because they rely in part on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s list of 31 alleged Michigan hate groups, a list that labels the American Freedom Law Center “anti-Muslim.”

The lawsuit says the recent policy announced by Nessel and Arbulu legitimizes the “radical, leftist” Southern Poverty Law Center's efforts to “marginalize” political opponents by labeling them hate groups.

The lawsuit stems from an announcement last week in which Nessel said her office would form a hate crime unit to prosecute hate crimes and review any groups identified in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s 2018 list of hate groups. Arbulu also announced plans to create a database to track bias and hate incidents that don’t rise to the level of a crime.

Nessel's office declined to comment on specifics of the American Freedom Law Center lawsuit as the office had not yet been served late Thursday morning. But her spokeswoman Kelly Rossman-McKinney reiterated assurances made last week that the department will rely on more than just the SPLC list to determine wrongdoing.

"We will rely on our own research and investigation in making a determination as to what organizations are operating as hate groups in this state, and what action is required in order to ensure the public is safe from any illegal activity which stems from such organizations," Rossman-McKinney said. 

Arbulu said he had not yet been served the lawsuit, but noted that "understanding the extent of hate and bias incidents" is an important mechanism to protect Michigan residents.

"The Michigan Department of Civil Rights has a long and proud history of protecting everyone’s civil rights and will continue to do so," Arbulu said.

The lawsuit asks the courts to rule Nessel and Arbulu’s policies unconstitutional, stop the enforcement of the policies on the American Freedom Law Center, and force the disclosure of any files or databases containing information on the Ann Arbor law center. The lawsuit also asks for attorney fees and costs.

American Freedom Law Center co-founder Robert Muise, in a statement Thursday, compared the review of groups listed in the SPLC hate group compilation to the “Thought Police” patrolling "crimespeak" in George Orwell’s book "1984."

"The same is true of the challenged policy at issue here," Muise said in a statement. "Not surprisingly, this is what you get when you elect left-wing progressives to public office.”

“When the Michigan attorney general and the director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights join and officially endorse this partisan attack by lending government resources and thus becoming the government enforcement agency for SPLC’s radical agenda, the protections of the United States Constitution are triggered,” the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit argues that Nessel and Arbulu are “conspiring” to promote the Southern Poverty Law Center’s agenda “by targeting opponents, such as Plaintiff, for investigations, surveillance, public condemnation, public scorn and other efforts designed to harm their work.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center has been listing the American Freedom Law Center as a hate group “for quite some time,” Intelligence Project Director Heidi Beirich told The News last week. The Intelligence Project compiles the data behind the hate group list and included the Ann Arbor law center because it is “rabidly anti-Muslim,” she said.

In an article earlier this month, the Southern Poverty Law Center called American Freedom Law Center co-founder and senior counsel David Yerushalmi "the father of the anti-Sharia movement."

The Ann Arbor law center maintained in its lawsuit that it is a “lawful, conservative, public interest law firm that defends conservative Christians and Jews,” and noted that the SPLC has been unable to note any criminal activity.

One of the examples cited by SPLC for calling the law center a hate group was an amicus brief the American Freedom Law Center filed in the U.S. Supreme Court “on behalf of several national security experts” in support of President Donald Trump’s “travel ban," the law center's complaint said.

“Indeed, this example is listed by SPLC as one of the ‘Key Moments’ of ‘hate’ in 2018,” the lawsuit said.

On its website, the American Freedom Law Center lists several civil rights lawsuits it has participated in, including its representation of several Sterling Heights residents opposing the construction of a mosque in 2017 and an ongoing lawsuit alleging that the Council on American-Islamic Relations committed consumer fraud when it "hired a fake lawyer who defrauded the CAIR clients."

According to its website, American Freedom Law Center's advisory board includes the Center for Security Policy's Founder and President Frank Gaffney, former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, former Central Intelligence Agency Director R. James Woolsey and former Department of Defense Inspector General Joseph Schmitz

eleblanc@detroitnews.com

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