The Separation of Church and State

Liberty University hit with record fine for ignoring federal law

  Rob Boston

Liberty University, the fundamentalist Christian institution founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, has just been slapped with a staggering fine of $14 million for ignoring a federal law that requires institutions of higher education that receive federal funds to report crime statistics.

The school, based in Lynchburg, Va., has also agreed to spend $2 million to make its campus safer. Liberty will be monitored for two years to ensure it follows through, reported NBC News.

The fine grew out of a 2022 investigation of Liberty after more than a dozen women who attended the school charged that the institution had a pattern of discouraging women who had been sexually assaulted from reporting the crimes.

Allegations of retaliation

The women, known as “Jane Does” in court documents, “charged that Liberty retaliated against people who reported sexual violence, and they accused the school of tacitly condoning it by giving more weight to the denials of the alleged predators, often male athletes, than the women who claimed to have been assaulted,” NBC reported.

The school is accused of violating the Clery Act, a 1990 federal law that requires any college or university that receives federal aid to compile and disclose information about crimes on or near campuses. The U.S. Department of Education monitors compliance with the law, and it can assess fines if schools don’t abide by the act.

But Liberty is a private institution, right? So why does it have to abide by this law? The truth is, Liberty, despite its frequent boasts about producing “champions for Christ,” has over the years become utterly dependent on taxpayer assistance. Figures vary, but somewhere between 30%-40% of Liberty’s students receive federal aid in the form of Pell Grants. In 2015, The Washington Post reported that Liberty’s phenomenal growth – it currently enrolls 115,000 students (mostly online) –  “has been fueled by billions in federal student aid made possible by President Obama and congressional Democrats.” In 2015, that amounted to more than $800 million in federal aid to Liberty students.

A duty to investigate

Accepting taxpayer funds also means accepting government oversight. This gave the Education Department the duty to investigate Liberty and assess the fines.

Liberty has admitted fault. In a media statement issued March 5, the school grumbled that it was the victim of “selective and unfair treatment” by the Department of Education but added, “[T]he university also concurs there were numerous deficiencies that existed in the past. We acknowledge and regret these past failures and have taken these necessary improvements seriously.”

Liberty brags about its sectarian mission and operates as a nest of Christian Nationalism and far-right, reactionary politics. It’s frustrating to see a school like that become so adept at raiding the public purse. But there’s an upside: The school’s reliance on tax support provides a measure of accountability. This shouldn’t be the last time the federal government uses it.

Photo by Taber Andrew Bain via Flickr

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