July/August 2012 Church & State | People & Events

A Religious Right legal group connected to Jerry Falwell Jr.’s Liberty University apparently doesn’t want Americans to know anything about its budget and is claiming to be a church-related entity to dodge public disclosure laws.

Liberty Counsel, founded by attorney Mat Staver, tells the Internal Revenue Service that it is a “church auxiliary.”

Under this status, the org­an­ization is tax-exempt under Section 501(c)(3) of the tax code but doesn’t have to file a Form 990, a detailed financial statement that tax-exempt groups must file with the IRS and make publicly available.

The Form 990 includes information on a given non-profit’s salaries, the amount of money it raises and how those funds are spent. (Houses of worship don’t have to file this form.)

Because Liberty Counsel no longer files a Form 990, the public doesn’t know how much money the group takes in or how that money is spent – even though the organization aggressively solicits donations from the public.

It seems unlikely that Liberty Counsel would qualify as a church or a church auxiliary. Its website says that 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.”

Similar groups, such as the Alliance Defense Fund and the American Center for Law and Justice, file the Form 990.

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. The Salvation Army, however, 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.

Americans United 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 the newspaper 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 Counsel’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.”