RICHMOND, Va. -- A religious freedom organization wants the Internal Revenue Service to investigate whether Liberty University violated federal tax law when it withdrew recognition of a student-run Democratic club.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State on Wednesday urged the IRS to review the tax-exempt status of the private university in Lynchburg, Va., founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell.
Liberty officials earlier this month informed the fledgling College Democrats club that it can no longer use the university's name or apply for school funding, saying the party's support of abortion and gay rights is inconsistent with the conservative Christian school's moral principles.
Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, said in a letter to the IRS that Liberty has supported a Republican club for years. Such political clubs often work on behalf of candidates, he wrote, and Liberty's action offers GOP candidates "a type of in-kind contribution" not available to Democrats.
"By banning a Democratic club while permitting a Republican club to exist and offering funding to the latter but not the former, university officials appear to be operating in violation of federal tax law," Lynn wrote.
Mathew Staver, dean of the Liberty University law school, called the complaint "frivolous" and said the school has not banned the club, which can continue to meet on campus.
"American United simply doesn't know the facts of the case," he said. "They are filing this to promote their own fundraising agenda and goals, which is frankly disconcerting."
Lynn responded: "I've heard this before. It's a typical diversion tactic to attack the messenger rather than confront the truth, which is that Liberty University has done the wrong thing."
Peggy Riley, an IRS spokesman in Boston, said she could not discuss a specific complaint. However, she said the law generally prohibits "political intervention in actual campaigns" by tax-exempt, nonprofit organizations.
Staver said Liberty's policy is issue-driven, not partisan.
"We're not going to lend our name to pro-abortion causes," he said.
Mark Hine, the university's vice president of student affairs, said in an e-mail to the College Democrats president earlier this month that even though the campus group "may not support the more radical planks of the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party is still the parent organization of the club on campus."
Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr. said last week the club's previous recognition by the school was "an oversight by an administrator" who didn't thoroughly consult school policy. He also said the university has received many complaints from parents and donors about the 30-member club.
The Democratic National Committee, chaired by Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, has urged Liberty to reverse its decision.