Liberty University, founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr. in 1971, isn’t just an institution of higher education – it’s also a nest of ultra-conservative politics. Republicans who aspire to high office regularly trek there for speeches and events, and the school has long sought to be a player in local, state and national politics.
Liberty’s political work has always been problematic, given the school’s status as a tax-exempt, nonprofit institution. Under a federal law known as the Johnson Amendment, 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, LU’s then-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.
Falwell Jr. agreed to resign as Liberty’s president last year in the wake of a sex scandal, but it appears that things are no better under the school’s new president, Jerry Prevo.
Politico has reported that Prevo told a former university official that he wanted the Falkirk Center, supposedly a university think tank, to get people elected to public office.
“Are they getting people elected? Which is one of our main goals,” Prevo said during a phone meeting earlier this year, according to Politico. “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.”
Prevo was apparently not aware of it, but he was being recorded at the time by Scott Lamb, then LU’s senior vice president for communications and public engagement. Lamb, who has since been fired by the school and is suing LU, gave a copy of the recording to Politico.
During the call, Prevo said that he wanted to see the Falkirk Center, which has since been renamed the Standing For Freedom 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 [sic] 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.”
Liberty was quick to issue a statement that Prevo did nothing wrong and knows what the law requires. But the fact remains that Liberty University has been shilling for Republican candidates for years now. We hoped that once Falwell Jr. departed, the school would finally begin obeying the law. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen anytime soon.
Photo by Taber Andrew Bain via Flickr