June 2021 Church & State Magazine | People & Events

Internal drama continues to roil Liberty University, the fundamentalist higher-education empire founded by TV preacher Jerry Falwell Sr.

After Falwell Sr. died in 2007, control of the school passed to his son, Jerry Falwell Jr. The latter ran the school with a tight fist for many years. While he grew the school’s size, he also ramped up its ties to far-right politics. But he ran into trouble last year in the wake of a sex scandal and was forced out.

The younger Falwell was given a $10.5 million severance package, but it now appears that some officials connected to the school want to get that money back and then some. They are suing him for $40 million.

The New York Times reported in mid-April that the lawsuit “alleges breach of contract and fiduciary duty. It claims that Mr. Falwell withheld scandalous and potentially damaging information from Liberty’s board of trustees, while negotiating a generous new contract for himself in 2019 under false pretenses. Mr. Falwell also failed to disclose and address ‘his personal impairment by alcohol,’ the suit alleges.”

Last year, Falwell claimed that he and his wife, Becki, were being threatened with extortion by a young man who had had a lengthy affair with Becki. The suit maintains that by failing to disclose this matter to Liberty’s board of trustees, Falwell damaged the school’s reputation.

The legal action also contains allegations of reckless behavior by Falwell that undermined the school’s conservative Christian mandates. It asserts, for example, that at one point Becki reached out to the trust­ees to express concern about Falwell’s drinking. The university offered to pay to send Falwell to an alcohol-rehab program, but he refused.

The lawsuit asserts that Liberty never owed Falwell $10.5 million in severance. The Times reported that the legal action asserts that Falwell arrived at that figure through deception. Knowing the information about his wife’s affair might become public, he convinced the board’s executive committee in 2019 to give him a new contract that included a higher payment if Falwell resigned or left the school for “good reason.”

Falwell’s actual severance, the suit maintains, should have been $2.5 million.

Although he no longer runs Liberty, Falwell has been trying to maintain ties to the university. Last month he announced he would hold a graduation party for seniors at a farm he owns near the school, but he later cancelled the event after being hospitalized for blood clots.