Liberty University, the conservative evangelical college founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr. in 1971, is using a school-sponsored think tank to intervene in partisan politics, a former employee has charged.
Scott Lamb, LU’s former senior vice president for communications and public engagement, last month provided a copy of a recording of himself and LU President Jerry Prevo to Politico during which Prevo outlined partisan goals for the think tank, then called the Falkirk Center but now known as the Standing For Freedom Center.
Lamb, who is suing the university over his dismissal, was talking with Prevo about the Falkirk Center, which was supposedly founded to focus on issues, when Prevo demanded to know whether the center was active in political races.
“Are they getting people elected? Which is one of our main goals,” Prevo said during a phone meeting earlier this year. “Are they really motivating our conservative people to really get out to vote? If they are, we ought to be seeing some changes in elected officials – and we are to some extent. All I want to do is to make us more effective.”
During the call, Prevo said that he wanted to see the Falkirk Center “be more effective than Ralph Reed,” a reference to the longtime GOP operative who has led Religious Right political organizations.
When Lamb suggested that such political advocacy might be a problem, Prevo, referring to Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, which deals with tax-exempt organizations, replied, “I have a 50c3 church. For 30 years, I’ve known how to handle that and not get into trouble. The homosexual community has tried to take me down for at least 30 years, and they have not been successful because I know how to work the 50c3.”
Prevo was apparently not aware that he was being recorded at the time.
Liberty was quick to issue a statement that Prevo did nothing wrong and knows what the law requires.
Americans United pointed out that LU has a long history of meddling in partisan politics, despite its tax-exempt status. (Under federal law, entities that hold this status may not intervene in elections by endorsing or opposing candidates for public office.)
The school appears to have violated the law several times. In 2007, former Liberty President Jerry Falwell Jr. used school resources to endorse Mike Huckabee for president. In 2009, school officials yanked official recognition of a student-run Democratic Party club even though a Republican club existed. The following year, Falwell used LU’s newspaper to attack a candidate for Virginia House of Delegates. In 2015, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) announced his candidacy for president during a rally at Liberty.