Liberty Counsel Con: What’s Falwell Lawyer Mat Staver Got To Hide?

To even the most casual observer, Liberty Counsel isn’t a church or a church auxiliary.

Here’s a question for Mat Staver, head of Liberty Counsel – what do you and your organization have to hide?

Liberty Counsel is a Religious Right legal group operating from Jerry Falwell Jr.’s Liberty University. It does things like argue that the Ten Commandments should be displayed in public buildings, that all abortions should be illegal and that marriage equality should be denied to gay couples. 

The rhetoric is often shrill, partisan and breathtakingly wrong-headed. Staver once said Americans United is “out to literally destroy America; they're out to erase our religious heritage and religious symbols from every area of life.” In a recent fund-raising pitch, he said the Obama administration’s inclusion of birth control as part of health care reform is “one of the most disrespectful, ‘in your face’ dictates ever inflicted upon the American people.”

But one of Staver’s most dubious claims is that Liberty Counsel is a “church auxiliary.” That means the organization is tax-exempt under Section 501(c)(3) of the tax code and doesn’t have to file a Form 990 that gives information on its activities. As a result, the public doesn’t know how much money Liberty Counsel takes in or how that money is spent.

To even the most casual observer, Liberty Counsel isn’t a church or a church auxiliary. In its own words on its website, Liberty Counsel “is an international nonprofit litigation, education, and policy organization dedicated to advancing religious freedom, the sanctity of life, and the family since 1989, by providing pro bono assistance and representation on these and related topics.”

That doesn’t sound like any church organization I know. If you cut through the rhetorical fog, it means Liberty Counsel is just another garden-variety Religious Right legal organization doing its best to undermine church-state separation.

Staver, who serves as dean of the Liberty University Law School, told The Roanoke Times that his group’s tax status is no different from the Salvation Army, but that’s baloney. The Salvation Army is actually a Christian denomination.

A recent profile of Staver in the Times noted that his organization has about 35 employees and offices in Lynchburg, Va., Orlando, Fla., and Washington, D.C. The organization also claims hundreds of volunteers who provide legal and other services. Again, this doesn’t sound much like a church.

AU suggested to the Times that it explore Liberty Counsel’s tax status, and the article noted that Staver filed a Form 990 until 2006, when his group started claiming status as a church auxiliary. In its final report to the IRS, Liberty Counsel reported $1.3 million in revenue and $1.1 million in expenses, including a $100,831 annual salary for Staver and $76,421 for his wife, Anita Staver, who is the group’s president.

When asked via email what he makes today, Staver didn’t respond. The group gave the Roanoke newspaper an audited statement that indicated a current income of $4.2 million in the last fiscal year.

AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn told the Times that he is troubled by Liberty’s lack of financial transparency.

“We don't know where they're getting their money or how they are spending it,” he said. “This cloak of invisibility is unique and, I think, really disreputable.”

To add insult to injury, Staver is serving on an evangelical Christian-led committee, the Commission on Accountability for Religious Organizations, which is looking into tax issues involving involving responsible use of resources and transparency!

This is truly an outrage.

Liberty Counsel isn’t a church auxiliary; its’ a Religious Right legal operation. And the question remains – what is this group trying to hide?

PS: Americans United is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, and we gladly play by the rules. You can read our most recent Form 990 here.