WASHINGTON (ABP) — Rep. Cass Ballenger's mouth has gotten him into trouble before, but his most recent controversial comments have earned him a lawsuit from the nation's largest Islamic civil-rights organization.
In federal court in Washington Dec. 2, the Council on American-Islamic Relations filed a $2 million suit against the conservative Republican, who has represented a district surrounding Hickory, N.C., for nine terms.
The suit alleges Ballenger defamed CAIR in comments he reportedly made to a Charlotte newspaper. On Oct. 4, the Charlotte Observer published an article that quoted Ballenger saying, among other things, that CAIR was “the fund-raising arm of Hezbollah.”
Hezbollah is a Lebanon-based militia group that the U.S. government considers a terrorist organization. The FBI has shut down several other Islamic groups in the U.S. since Sept. 11, 2001, accusing them of funding Hezbollah and similar groups. However, CAIR has never faced such charges.
The suit also notes that Ballenger said the stress caused by the proximity of CAIR's headquarters to his Capitol Hill home contributed to the break-up of his marriage earlier this year. According to the newspaper, Ballenger said the opening of CAIR's offices on New Jersey Avenue, just two and a half blocks south of the Capitol, “bugged the hell” out of his wife, Donna.
Ballenger said his wife was disturbed by the sight of women “in hoods” going in and out of CAIR's offices.
The congressman announced Dec. 2 that he would not seek re-election in 2004, thus retiring from 38 straight years in elected office. His office declined to respond to inquiries about the lawsuit.
The Raleigh News & Observer reported Dec. 3 that, speaking to North Carolina reporters following his retirement announcement, Ballenger claimed the comments in question were not meant to reflect his personal opinion of CAIR, but rather to explain why his wife was uneasy living near the organization. “I was quoting my wife's feelings,” he said, according to the newspaper. “I couldn't give a hoot about the Muslims across the street.”
CAIR said Ballenger's comments had significantly harmed the organization, and that the lawsuit was their only recourse. “With this lawsuit, we are sending a clear message to all those who make malicious and defamatory statements against American Muslims or their institutions that they will be held accountable in a court of law,” Arsalan Iftikhar, CAIR's director of legal affairs, said in a statement.
Ballenger has previously sparked controversy for his controversial statements and actions regarding minority groups. Last year, he was forced to apologize to Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) for saying that the African-American congresswoman stirred “a little bit of a segregationist feeling” in him.
He also infamously refused to remove a black lawn jockey figurine from the front yard of his North Carolina home. Later a member of his staff painted the face of the statue white.