The watchdog group Americans United for Separation of Church and State has asked the Internal Revenue Service to investigate Liberty University in Virginia for what it calls a "clear pattern of partisan intervention" in the recent race for a state House of Delegates seat.
Americans United says Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr. -- the son of the Evangelical Christian school's now-deceased founder and conservative commentator Jerry Falwell Sr. -- and other school officials used the school newspaper to attack incumbent Del. Shannon Valentine (D) and endorse her opponent, Scott Garrett (R), who won by only about 200 votes including strong support from Liberty students.
"I believe the evidence is clear that Liberty officials have violated the law," said Americans United Director Barry Lynn.
The letter [pdf] documents how the Liberty Champion -- a newspaper controlled and subject to censorship by the school's administration -- published numerous articles and columns attacking Valentine and supporting Garrett, and had copies of one issue with numerous anti-Valentine pieces distributed to the wider Lynchburg, Va. community:
This is significant because such distribution of the paper in the wider community may be unprecedented. The Liberty Champion normally circulates on campus only. The fact that Falwell sent the newspaper to city residents is strong evidence he wanted to get this issue, full of anti-Valentine material, into the hands of voters in an effort to influence the outcome of the election.
On Election Day, Falwell ordered classes canceled while the president of the school's theological seminary drove around campus in a truck sponsored by the Liberty University College Republicans encouraging students to vote. The truck was decorated with GOP candidates' signs and an elephant crafted from chicken wire.
Following the election, an article in a magazine published by the school quoted Falwell as saying "the LU student vote was responsible for Scott Garrett's victory." And a legal group operated by the school issued a press release that said Garrett's "stunning victory is attributed solely to the voting block [sic] of the students, faculty and staff at Liberty University."
The Americans United complaint points to a 2006 IRS document titled "Election Year Activities and the Prohibition on Political Campaign Intervention for Section 501(c)(3) Organizations," in which the agency warns nonprofits against using official publications to endorse or oppose candidates.
"In this case, it's clear that Falwell engaged in a pattern of activities that used university publications, resources and even staff to intervene in a partisan election and affect its outcome," it says.
The brouhaha over Liberty University's involvement in the House of Delegates race follows a controversy that erupted last May when the school revoked official recognition of the College Democrats. In an e-mail to the group's leaders, Liberty Vice President of Student Affairs Mark Hine wrote:
"The Democratic Party platform is contrary to the mission of Liberty University and to Christian doctrine (supports abortion, federal funding of abortion, advocates repeal of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, promotes the "LGBT" agenda, hate crimes, which include sexual orientation and gender identity, socialism, etc.)"