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Why Is Jerry Falwell's Evangelical University Getting Filthy Rich off Your Tax Money?

How taxpayers are funding the world's biggest Christian evangelical university.
 
 
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One might think that a private, decidedly conservative, and totally evangelical Christian University, that was founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, who was openly critical of government programs, would spurn federal dollars.

Au contraire mon ami.

"I hope I live to see the day when, as in the early days of our country, we won't have any public schools. The churches will have taken them over again and Christians will be running them. What a happy day that will be!" - The Rev. Jerry Falwell, America Can Be Saved

This year, the 40th anniversary of Liberty University, Rev. Falwell's dream -- now being looked after by his son Jerry Jr. -- has become a reality thanks in large part to America's taxpayers.

Founded by Falwell in 1971, Liberty University, which according to its website is "the largest and fastest growing Christian Evangelical university in the world" and "the largest private university in Virginia," is "celebrating 40 Years of Training Champions for Christ."

Liberty U. receives massive government aid

During the last fiscal year alone, Liberty received about $445 million in federal financial aid money, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Over the past few years, Liberty University has raked in so much taxpayer money from the federal government that is now ranked among the top ten universities in the United States receiving federal dollars. It is also Virginia's top recipient of federal money.

In a 2009 piece for RH Reality Check titled, "Why is the Federal Government Supporting Evangelism?" Eleanor J. Bader pointed out that LU's [Jesse] Helms School of Government "crows that it turns out 'Christ-centered leaders, able to apply God's word in every area of life.' What's more, LU's webpage showcases its mission, promising students an 'action-oriented curriculum dedicated to world evangelism and repudiation of political correctness.'

"Not sure what that means? The site explains: 'A strong commitment to political conservatism, total rejection of socialism, and firm support for America's economic system of free enterprise.'"

Since it doesn't get much more religiously oriented than Liberty University, a fair question to ask is: Should a private sectarian institution be receiving federal funds?

"The short answer is that it would be difficult -- if not impossible -- to challenge the government grants going to Liberty students," Rob Boston, Senior Policy Analyst with Americans United, told me in an e-mail exchange. "This can be difficult area of the law. The Supreme Court has always been more lax on aid to religious colleges than it has been on aid to secondary schools. In years past, the court has held that tax aid cannot go to institutions deemed 'pervasively sectarian' but that such aid was permissible for those schools that were judged to be 'religiously affiliated.' This test has begun to erode at the high court, however, under the conservative majority. Complicating the matter is that the fact that many conservative legal scholars argue that Pell Grants are actually aid to the student, not the school -- an argument that has been embraced by the Supreme Court's conservative bloc."

"The rapid growth of Liberty's online program has fueled the increased reliance on federal aid dollars," said Robert Ritz, LU's executive director of financial aid Lynchburg, Virginia's The News & Advance recently reported. In addition to 12,000 students on campus, the University enrolled nearly 52,000 students online last year.

"It has ballooned," said Ritz of Liberty's financial aid volume. "In some categories, I've seen us rank no. 3 nationally, or in the top ten. It's because of our size and the growth." According to The News & Advance, "In the span of a year, Liberty's experienced about a 56 percent spike in federal student aid, from $284 million in 2008-2009 to $445 million in 2009-2010, according to Department of Education data compiled by The News & Advance. (LU calculates the total aid at $432 million and $277 million, still a 56 percent increase.)"

 
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