Liberty University recently changed its policies governing clubs, and the Democratic club apparently was the only organization in violation of the new rules. (Photo: Tim Ross on Wikimedia Commons)
Liberty University recently informed leaders of its College Democrats chapter that the club would no longer be recognized by the university. The school founded by the late Jerry Falwell just recognized the chapter last October. The latest decision quickly reverberated through Virginia politics, becoming a topic among the Democratic and Republican candidates for this year's gubernatorial race.
"We are unable to lend support to a club whose parent organization stands against the moral principles held by Liberty University," read the May 15 email notification from Mark Hine, vice president of student affairs at Liberty.
"Even though this club may not support the more radical planks of the democratic party, the democratic party is still the parent organization of the club on campus," the email continued. "The Democratic Party Platform is contrary to the mission of LU 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). The candidates this club supports uphold the Platform and implement it. The candidates supported are directly contrary to the mission of LU. By using LU or Liberty University and Democrat in the name, the two are associated and the goals of both run in opposite directions."
The constitution of Liberty chapter of College Democrats states that the club "pledges itself to support the philosophy and candidates of the Democratic Party." However, it also notes that the chapter "will take a pro-life stance and support the traditional form of marriage."
Liberty recently changed its policies governing clubs, and the Democratic club apparently was the only organization administrators decided was in violation of the new rules. Leaders of the organization were instructed to "cease" using the Liberty name or logo.
Once news about the email to the College Democrats was made public on May 21, controversy quickly erupted. Liberty President Jerry Falwell Jr. argued in response that the club had not been banned from campus, although the email suggests otherwise. Additionally, Falwell now suggests the group might regain recognition if the club affiliated with an organization like Democrats for Life, instead of the national Democratic Party.
"They are good, Christian kids who sit with me at ball games," Falwell added. "I just hope they find a pro-life family organization to affiliate with so they can be endorsed by Liberty again."
State and local Democratic leaders quickly criticized Liberty's decision, including gubernatorial candidates for this fall's election and Virginia's Democratic governor.
"My issue with this is the statement that the Democratic Party platform is contrary to the mission of Liberty University and to Christian doctrine," Mark Lawrence, the Democratic chairman in Lynchburg where Liberty is located, argued. "They are essentially saying, 'You cannot be a Christian and a Democrat.'"
Terry McAuliffe, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor, joined Democratic students at Liberty in a phone conversation on May 22 that was publicly released. McAuliffe, who is Catholic, stated that the College Democrats at Liberty had been "very helpful" for his campaign and that he hoped to see more young people involved in civic affairs.
"I'm a huge advocate of freedom of speech," McAuliffe declared as he noted that the university's name means freedom. "I think everyone ought to be able to make their voices known."
Jesse Ferguson, spokesperson for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Brian Moran, stated, "Colleges are supposed to be a marketplace of ideas—even ones you might not agree with."
Creigh Deeds, another Democratic gubernatorial candidate, argued in a statement, "Restricting free speech and discouraging students from participating in the political process are not what our colleges and universities should be about. I call on Liberty University to reverse their decision and reinstate the Liberty University Democratic Club."
Even the Republican candidate for governor, Bob McDonnell, criticized the decision. McDonnell, a Catholic who criticized Notre Dame for awarding an honorary degree to President Barack Obama, has been criticized by Democrats for close ties to televangelist Pat Robertson.
McDonnell's spokesperson, Tucker Martin, stated, "Bob McDonnell personally disagrees with this specific decision by the school because our political process is strengthened by the free and robust exchange of ideas."
Virginia's current governor, Democrat Tim Kaine, also sharply criticized Liberty's decision. Kaine, who highlighted his Catholic missionary service during his successful gubernatorial campaign, is also the current chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
"I urge the leadership of Liberty University to reverse this attack on the liberty of its students and allow the College Democrats to have the same rights on campus as their counterparts, the College Republicans," wrote Kaine, who has twice spoken at Liberty. "For Liberty University to deprive the College Democrats of the same opportunity as College Republicans to associate and be recognized as a campus organization violates that fundamental principle of fairness and teaches the students the wrong message about civil life as they move from college into the broader world."
"Most Democrats, like most Americans, are people of faith. Democrats are active in faith-based institutions across the country," Kaine added. "My own work as a missionary in Central America inspired me to become active in public service."
Liberty officials claimed that the decision to remove recognition of the College Democrats was not a political decision. However, recent commencement speakers have included Republicans John McCain, Newt Gingrich, Karl Rove, Chuck Norris and Sean Hannity.
The 2009 commencement speaker was evolution critic and Republican commentator Ben Stein, who is Jewish. Falwell Jr. stated about the selection of Stein, "I believe Liberty will welcome Mr. Stein despite our sharp differences."
Numerous Southern Baptist leaders are on the Liberty board of trustees, including Ronnie Floyd, Jack Graham, Richard Lee, Gene Mims, Bailey Smith, James Merritt, Jerry Vines and current SBC President Johnny Hunt.
In 2007, the Baptist Center for Ethics released the DVD and study guide "Golden Rule Politics: The Rightful Role of Faith in Politics." Through interviews with clergy and politicians, the DVD "challenges the Christian Right's political myth constructed over 25 years that the Republican Party is America's moral party, the party of God's favor."
Brian Kaylor is a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com