It seems Liberty University Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr. just can’t help himself when it comes to political endorsements.
At the Lynchburg, Va., school’s graduation ceremony over the weekend, Falwell made sure to say that inviting Mitt Romney, the presumptive GOP candidate for president, in no way constituted an endorsement by the tax-exempt institution. He even said nonprofits like Liberty can’t endorse candidates for office, which is exactly right.
So what did Falwell do next?
He said: “I’m thrilled to welcome the next President of the United States!”
Inviting one candidate for office to give a political speech while snubbing others puts a tax-exempt organization on thin ice as far as the Internal Revenue Service is concerned, even if no other sort of verbal endorsement is made. But the intro by Falwell, the school’s top official, was nothing short of a backdoor endorsement of Romney, even if he said it wasn’t.
Earlier this year Falwell helped former Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich with an advertising blitz ahead of the Iowa caucuses in January. Now Falwell delivered Romney a captive audience of evangelical voters, whom Romney is still trying to win over.
Early returns suggest the speech gave Romney a boost with the Religious Right crowd.
“I think he touched on the key issues that are important to social conservatives,” Family Research Council President Tony Perkins said, according to Politico. “He mentioned Rick Santorum and Rick’s emphasis and the need to have the family and the ties to economic success.”
The larger issue here is that this election foray is far from Falwell’s first venture into partisan politics. Americans United has complained about his activities before, including the Iowa incident, an attempt by the university to discriminate against a student Democrats club in 2009, and a 2009 scheme in which the Liberty student newspaper told students to vote Republican in a local election. (The school also helped register students to vote and bused them to and from polling places on Election Day.)
We don’t know what the IRS is doing about those complaints since investigations are kept private, but if Falwell and Liberty aren’t being investigated, they certainly should be.
It’s no real surprise that Falwell Jr. is heavily involved in partisan politics, because the (rotten) apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Liberty University founder Jerry Falwell Sr. was smacked pretty hard by the IRS back in the day for diverting resources from his Old Time Gospel Hour to political activity. The IRS fined him $50,000 for his activities in 1986 and 1987.
At this point, it’s obvious that Falwell Jr. is picking right up where his father left off. He has tried before to turn Liberty University into a united bloc of voters, and he did it again this weekend by inviting Romney to speak to students (I’m sure President Obama’s invitation got lost in the mail.)
For someone who presides over a learning institution, Falwell Jr. isn’t much of a student. One would think that the fine his dad got stuck with would serve as a warning, but it seems he hasn’t gotten the message. Perhaps a stronger punishment is in order for this repeat offender.