“I can feel the Lord moving here,” remarks a visitor looking at Liberty University’s tidy Disney World campus towards the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia.
But other, more temporal, by no means pious questions now weigh upon the once powerful evangelical institution founded in 1971 by television preacher Jerry Falwell Sr, the Baptist minister who, eight years later, created the moral majority that established mobilized the Christian to the services. of the Republican Party.
For decades Liberty has been an intermediary in the law of American politics and a bulwark of social conservatism, but a succession of scandals now threatens a university that requires students to follow The Liberty Way, a student honor code that prohibits sexual relations outside of “a biblically ordered marriage between a born man and a born woman”.
But last week saw the dismissal of a Liberty spokesperson who had defended 22 female students in a lawsuit that claims the university “allowed rape on campus” and dropped complaints of sexual assault and rape, an violation of Federal Title IX laws, in what he said was “the militarization of the ‘Liberty Way’”.
Scott Lamb claimed in a separate action filed last week that he was unlawfully dismissed from his post as spokesperson after participating in several interviews with an outside law firm hired by the university to investigate the treatment allegations of sexual assault of students.
The women’s claims came to light over the summer a year after Jerry Falwell Jr, son of the founder, was forced to step down as president of the university after posting an Instagram photo of himself standing with his pants unzipped and an arm around a young woman.
It comes after Giancarlo Granda, a pool attendant in Florida, claimed he had a six-year relationship with Falwell’s wife Becki which involved having sex while Falwell watched. Falwell, an outspoken ally of Donald Trump, “knew from day one of our relationship, and he actually watched,” Granda later told ABC News.
But, despite the grim details of the Falwell wedding, it is the latest scandal to hit Liberty that could prove to be the most significant. Liberty’s new president, Jerry Prevo, a 76-year-old retired pastor of a large Alaskan church, issued a statement to the campus community saying the college would not tolerate “Title IX violations, sexual abuse or assault in any form at any time ”.
Mixed in with this toxic stew, Lamb provided Politico with recordings of Prevo saying he wanted the university’s internal think tank – the Standing for Freedom Center – to become more effective in political activity, including influencing political leaders. elections, a potential violation of the university’s tax-free charitable status. .
A spokesperson for Liberty University responded, saying that Prevo “is aware of the lines established by the IRS for political engagement of 501 (c) (3) organizations, even though Scott Lamb is unaware of them” and has pointed out guidelines stating that the university may support certain causes, but not individual applicants.
In the nearby town of Lynchburg, Virginia, some doubted it. A long-time resident said the university has gained regional political influence, encouraging students to obtain voting exemptions to register in national and national elections.
Voters in Virginia will elect a new governor on Tuesday, a contest of national political significance, with polls suggesting Republican nominee Glenn Youngkin could win in the state Joe Biden won by just 10 points ago a year.
But on campus, Lamb’s intervention in the scandal angered some women who say their sexual assault allegations were ignored in the first place and are now overshadowed by a legal confrontation between a male-dominated institution and a former male spokesperson.
A 20-year-old student, identified as “Jane 16” in court documents, told the Guardian that she was raped by a member of the college football team in February. The woman, who has since dropped out of college due to her experience, said her attacker remains on the team.
After the assault, she went to an anonymous forensic examination at the Lynchburg area hospital, then went to the university’s Title IX office to report the incident, which resulted in finally done in April. A formal seven-hour Title IX hearing was held last month.
But the university’s response to Jane 16’s request was to declare her alleged attacker not responsible. “It was just totally biased,” she said. “Because he is part of the football team, he left without any sanction. The most shocking thing is that I am not the only woman to have come out specifically against him.
Jane 16, who appealed the university’s decision last month but has yet to receive a response, said she felt the university employee she spoke to was transferring the responsibility for his aggression with the implications of the culture of purity for which women are responsible, and mitigating, men’s desires.
“When they asked me if I was in a room alone with him, they asked me if I knew it was against the Liberty Way?” During my audition they asked her what I was wearing that night, ”she says.
“It was very blameworthy for the victim. The question implies that what you were wearing could have invited some sort of sexual action, ”added Jane 16. Another victim, Jane 18, had a similar experience,“ and I’m pretty sure there are some. others, ”she said.
This is not the first time that such a scandal has engulfed the college.
In 2000, a 15-year-old said he was sexually assaulted at a Liberty camp by Jesse Matthew Jr, an LU football player at the time, after which Liberty allegedly threatened to accuse the teenager – Jane Doe 12 – for filing a false report. . Matthew then murdered two women, Morgan Harrington in 2009 and Hannah Graham in 2014. He is currently serving a life sentence.
Ten other women, who had been students, employees or participants in LU programs, told ProPublica that they chose not to report their rapes to campus officials because they feared punishment.
Another student, Diane Stargel, came forward to claim that after being raped by another student at an off-campus party, a counselor asked her to sign a ‘victim notice’ but warned her that she might have broken the Liberty Way. Stargel has not officially reported being assaulted.
“I loved Liberty and now I feel like I can’t trust them to do me justice,” confirmed Jane 16. “The Liberty Way scared me to report. “
But college students, given the institution’s emphasis on “the way,” have not demonstrated against Liberty’s handling of the charges, and many on campus have declined to discuss the matter.
Josie Young, spokesperson for Justice for Janes, a Liberty campus reform group, said a third party should be called in to investigate the university’s human resources and Title IX offices looking for areas potential for corruption and mismanagement. Young said a temporary student group examining Title IX issues has been closed.
“A lot of people think it’s new, but it’s not. The assaults on campus have been covered up for years. Support for the group, Young added, comes mainly from female students. “A lot of students think it’s a female problem, but it’s not. It is a problem that affects everyone.
A spokesperson for the university told the Guardian: “The University of Liberty prefers not to comment publicly on the disputes, but the university would like to affirm its commitment to take all allegations of sexual assault seriously. and in accordance with the law. “
Daniel Harris, student and founding organizer of the Janes Group, said he remains deeply troubled that women’s claims have not received special attention from a university that claims to hold itself to a moral standard higher.
Falwell Jr, Harris recalls, was known to change clothes on student body view summons and do pelvic thrust exercises or “like” students in bikinis on social media. “A lot of students didn’t like it and thought it was unprofessional.”
The Falwell scandal, coupled with two dozen women claiming their sexual assault, has altered Liberty’s image. “To have a bulwark in Christian academia is great as long as it adheres to the values it professes,” says Harris. “Freedom is no longer a morally bulletproof institution above criticism.”