Election Day 2009 was a festive occasion at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va.
Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr. cancelled classes. Students were allowed to visit friends of the opposite sex in their dorms – a rare privilege. Ergun Caner, president of LU’s seminary, drove around campus with the College Republicans in a truck festooned with signs for GOP candidates and decorated with an elephant made of chicken wire.
A shuttle circulated on campus all day, transporting students to the local polling place. And if students had any doubt how they should cast their ballots, Liberty had some thoughts about that, too.
A week before the Nov. 3 election, LU’s student newspaper, Liberty Champion, published a special election edition. The issue focused on a House of Delegates race between incumbent Democrat Shannon Valentine and her Republican challenger Scott Garrett.
The paper contained several columns attacking Valentine. It reprinted a “voter guide” published by the Virginia Family Foundation. The guide distorted Valentine’s views and was stacked to endorse Garrett.
Falwell was so proud of the paper that Liberty arranged to have copies mailed to every household in Lynchburg – a possibly unprecedented step for a school paper that normally circulates only on campus.
Why was Falwell so interested in getting a school newspaper full of information attacking a House candidate into the hands of Lynchburg residents? Probably because he suspected the race was going to be close.
And indeed it was. Valentine was leading as the election returns came in. But when results started coming in from Heritage Elementary School, the precinct where LU students vote, the tide turned. At the end of the evening, Garrett had won by about 200 votes.
Falwell was ecstatic. He later reported that he and his wife Becki were in Richmond celebrating the election of Robert McDonnell, Virginia’s new Republican governor, when word came in about Valentine’s defeat.
“As Becki and I celebrated with the new governor in Richmond on Tuesday night, I received word that the LU student vote was responsible for Scott Garrett’s victory,” Falwell wrote in Liberty Journal. “I shared the news with the speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates and my wife snapped a picture of him giving me a high five. I was elated, not because of who won and who lost the race, but because LU students were the deciding factor in their first local election.”
But it would be easy for an observer to say that Falwell was pleased over who won – and that Garrett clearly had an in with the LU crowd. On Oct. 20, for example, he was featured in a laudatory article in the Liberty Champion, noting that he had visited campus to discuss health-care reform. The article quoted Garrett extensively and included two photographs of him.
Shortly after the election, Americans United began receiving phone calls and e-mails from people in and around Lynchburg who were concerned about Liberty’s political activities. The university, as a 501(c)(3) non-profit institution, is not permitted to intervene in elections or endorse candidates – yet it appeared that LU had not only played a crucial role in Garrett’e election but was bragging about it.
Staff members at AU began sifting through the material Lynchburg residents sent, including copies of Liberty Champion, Liberty Journal and media reports about the election.
They decided the complaints had merit, and on Feb. 22, Americans United sent a letter to the IRS, asking the agency to investigate partisan politicking by Liberty.
“We have documented a clear pattern of partisan intervention orchestrated by top Liberty officials,” said Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn in the official complaint. “I believe the evidence is clear that Liberty officials have violated the law.&rdquo.
AU’s letter – the result of more than three months of investigating – makes the following points:
• Falwell and other university officials used Liberty Champion to run a series of articles attacking Valentine and endorsing Garrett. The letter asserts that the newspaper, although staffed by students, is subject to review and censorship by university officials and thus qualifies as a university publication.
• University officials twice arranged for a “voter guide” published by the Virginia Family Foundation to appear in the Champion. The guide distorted Valentine’s views and was stacked to endorse Garrett. Copies of the Oct. 27 issue of the newspaper were mailed to all Lynchburg residents.
• On Election Day, Ergun Caner, a top university official, drove around campus with the College Republicans, rounding up voters.
• After the election, Falwell and other Liberty officials openly boasted that their actions had swayed the election to Garrett. They have vowed to intervene in future elections.
“This is one of the most blatant and dishonest attempts to influence an election by a non-profit religious organization I have ever seen,” Lynn said. “We hope the IRS acts swiftly to stop Liberty’s overt partisan politicking.”
The Feb. 22 complaint marks the third time AU has asked the IRS to look into partisan activity at LU. In December of 2007, AU reported the school to the IRS after Falwell used university letterhead and its e-mail system to distribute a message endorsing Mike Huckabee for president.
In May of 2009, AU requested that the IRS take action after Liberty officials denied official recognition of a student Democratic club while offering it to a Republican group. (They later reversed the decision after the media got wind of the story.)
With his penchant for partisan politicking, Falwell Jr. is simply following in the footsteps of his late father. Falwell Sr., who was tapped to head the Moral Majority in the late 1970s and who created Liberty University, was known for his frequent displays of no-holds-barred partisanship on behalf of the GOP.
The elder Falwell’s Old Time Gospel Hour lost its tax-exempt status retroactively for the years 1986 and 1987 after a four-year IRS audit determined that the ministry had diverted money to a political action committee. The ministry agreed to pay the IRS $50,000 in taxes for those years and to change its organizational structure so that no future political campaign intervention activities would occur.
The younger Falwell has apparently learned nothing from his father’s reckless partisan intervention. Falwell and other LU leaders defiantly attacked AU’s February letter to the IRS and vowed to continue their political intervention.
Mathew Staver, dean of LU’s law school and founder of a Religious Right legal group called Liberty Counsel, told the Lynchburg News & Advance that AU’s complaint is “bogus” and insisted that Liberty students control the Champion. He added that Liberty Counsel is considering suing AU for harassment.
Falwell chimed in that Americans United has “painted itself into a corner” with this complaint.
“Unless they now file a complaint against every university newspaper in the country that endorsed a candidate, our claim that they’re nothing but a partisan organization will be proven true,” Falwell said.
AU pointed out that Falwell’s assertion is incorrect. Many university newspapers are funded with student activity fees and are independent of the school administration. The Champion, while staffed by students, remains under the thumb of LU officials. Issues are subject to review and censorship prior to distribution, a fact an editor at the paper later confirmed for Americans United.
In its letter to the IRS, AU notes that the Champion is an official publication of Liberty University. The federal tax agency has made it clear that non-profit entities may not use their publications to intervene in elections.
Undeterred, Falwell has vowed to continue electioneering. He now has his eyes on the upcoming Lynchburg City Council elections and has even insisted that city officials move the polling place from Heritage Elementary School to another location to accommodate LU students.
On Election Day, Falwell, Caner and other LU officials showed up at Heritage Elementary, blustering about possible attempts to deny LU students the right to vote. But observers reported no problems at the polling site, and most people wrote off the stunt as more theatrics by Falwell.
Liberty students currently vote at Heritage Elementary, but Falwell has insisted that the polling place be moved, saying the school is ill equipped to handle an influx of new voters.
Originally, Falwell proposed that students vote at Thomas Road Baptist Church, the mega-church founded by Jerry Falwell Sr. and now pastored by Jonathan Falwell, Jerry Jr.’s brother. When election officials balked at that suggestion, he proposed voting at a shopping center that the university owns.
The city council held a stormy three-hour meeting on the matter in late February but voted not to make the change. More than 200 Liberty students and officials attended the meeting, accompanied by someone dressed as “Sparky,” the eagle mascot of Liberty University.
The News & Advance reported that tensions ran high.
Observed the newspaper, “At one point, Liberty University’s director of commuter affairs Larry Provost loudly booed Councilman Ceasor Johnson. In another moment, a well-known local civil rights activist, Mary Payne, said too much time had been wasted on this ‘sorry subject’ and said it was not council’s responsibility to ‘put diapers on’ college students.”
Given the demographics of the area, LU students could definitely make a difference in Lynchburg elections if enough follow Falwell’s commands. The school has grown steadily since its founding in 1971 and now has about 12,000 on-campus students.
Lynchburg’s population, according to a 2008 U.S. Census estimate, hovers around 72,500, about 78 percent of whom are over 18 and eligible to vote.
But like a lot of municipalities, Lynchburg’s voter turnout can be unpredictable. Media outlets reported high turnout in November of 2008, a presidential election year with a race that generated a lot of interest. Earlier that year, turnout for municipal elections was much lower, failing to hit 20 percent.
The News & Advance reported that turnout during the Valentine-Garrett race was about 43 percent. It was lower in some city precincts but high at Heritage Elementary, leading some analysts to speculate that LU students had indeed made the difference.
Why is Jerry Falwell Jr. so determined to forge a political machine in Lynchburg? The surprising answer may have as much to do with mundane issues like zoning as with the hot-button social issues his family has obsessed over.
Falwell is angry because he perceives LU as a major player in town – in 2008, the school’s budget exceeded $360 million – yet Lynchburg officials have denied him an unfettered right to expand the campus as he sees fit.
In a press statement, Falwell griped about municipal priorities. He carped that the city has raised local taxes to “astronomical levels” and spent the money on “projects that benefit downtown and other sections of the city while requiring LU to build roads and other infrastructure – the types of projects that have been funded by taxpayers in other parts of the city.”
In fact, Lynchburg officials’ reluctance to pay for expanding and improving Liberty may be due not to hostility but to respect for the Virginia Constitution. That document states that no one “shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place or ministry whatsoever” – language written by Thomas Jefferson.
The Virginia Constitution also says, “No appropriation of public funds shall be made to any school or institution of learning not owned or exclusively controlled by the State.”
David Cobb, pastor of First Christian Church in Lynchburg and president of Americans United’s Lynchburg Chapter, said people in town are becoming concerned about Falwell’s overt politicking.
“They have a right to participate,” Cobb said, “but when they publicly put so much emphasis on the impact they can have on municipal and national elections, when they talked about how they could carry Virginia in the presidential election for the Republicans, that concerned a lot of us.”
Cobb, who has been pastoring the church for about three years, said he doesn’t dispute the right of Liberty students to register and vote in local elections. Nor does he think Falwell doesn’t have the right to speak out on issues. But he worries about where all of this will lead.
“I think, personally, Falwell wants what we all want – to make a difference in the world,” Cobb added. “I assume he wants to make a difference according to his values. I want that too – they’re just different values.”