Future of Jerry Falwell's 21-year-old Liberty University is in some doubt


LYNCHBURG, Va. -- As the Rev. Jerry Falwell makes his appearance this week at the Republican National Convention, the future of the college he founded to promote the ideals of the religious right is in some doubt.

Mr. Falwell, the fundamentalist Baptist preacher and televangelist, opened Liberty Baptist College in 1971 in Lynchburg in central Virginia. The college, now Liberty University, was to be an extension of his ministry, Thomas Road Baptist Church, with the stated purpose of "training young champions for Christ for world evangelization."

Twenty-one years later, facing $73 million of debt and the possibility of bankruptcy, the university is fighting to maintain his vision -- in part by playing down its identity as a religious college.

Mr. Falwell's organization borrowed heavily in the 1980s to expand the Liberty campus.

In February, the ministry stopped payment on all debt when threatened with a mortgage foreclosure on the Liberty campus. Mr. Falwell is now working with his creditors on a payment restructuring plan.

Liberty's financial state brought an inspection this month from a Department of Education official to assess the university's ability to manage its federal financial aid.

And money from the state of Virginia may soon be cut off.

In Virginia, all full-time state students who attend approved private colleges that are not intended to provide religious training or theological education are eligible for tuition assistance grants. Liberty University students received $1.3 million in such aid last year.

But the state Supreme Court ruled in 1989, when Liberty tried to obtain tax-exempt bonds for development, the university is one where "religion is so pervasive that a substantial portion of its functions are subsumed in religious function."

The court cited Liberty's requirements that students and faculty attend weekly services "of Thomas Road Baptist Church."

But at a meeting of the State Council of Higher Education in mid-July, Liberty University officials argued that Thomas Road Baptist Church was not in control and that students had not had to attend Thomas Road services since 1984.

But representatives of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a non-profit research group based in Silver Spring, contend Liberty was still a primarily religious institution.

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