The Rev. Nathanael B. Habel, a Virginia Southern Baptist minister who advocated for church-state separation and fought to stop tax subsidies for the Rev. Jerry Falwell’s empire, passed away July 29 at the age of 94.
Habel, who went by “Nick,” objected in 1990 when Falwell sought tax-free industrial bonds for Liberty University. Habel asked Americans United to assist him in stopping Liberty from receiving the bonds, which were an indirect form of government support. Habel and a friend, Haynie Kabler, agreed to act as plaintiffs in the case, which AU took the Virginia Supreme Court.
In Habel v. Lynchburg Industrial Authority (1991), the Virginia high court ruled unanimously in Habel’s favor. During the case, Habel approached Falwell on one occasion and advised him to rely on support from the members of his church, not the state.
Habel said that his legal action against Liberty was motivated by principle, not personal animus. He noted that he and his wife prayed for Falwell and his university nightly.
“It was a moment when a principle I had stood for all my adult life was preserved,” Habel said at the time.
The Religious Herald, a Virginia Baptist newspaper, reported that Habel served Baptist churches in southern Virginia as a minister from 1944 until the mid-’60s. In 1964, he championed racial integration at a time when that wasn't popular in many Southern churches. Habel eventually left the ministry and moved to Lynchburg and went to work in public education.
In Amherst County, Habel led efforts to integrate the schools.
“When the next battle is waged over religious liberty, the best we can hope is that the spirit of Nick Habel will be embodied within another person of character, courage and conviction,” Fred Anderson, executive director of the Virginia Baptist Historical Society, wrote of Habel.