By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 23, 2009
RICHMOND, May 22 -- Liberty University will no longer recognize its campus Democratic club because, officials say, the national party's platform goes against the conservative Christian school's moral principles.
Officials at the private Lynchburg school, which was founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, said they made the decision after receiving complaints from trustees, parents and donors.
"They really are great kids and good friends of mine," said Jerry Falwell Jr., who became the school's chancellor after his father died in 2007. "It's just an issue of what Liberty's mission is."
The decision led to swift and strong criticism by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and the three Democrats running to replace him. Kaine, who spoke on the campus on behalf of then-Sen. Barack Obama last year, urged the school to reconsider.
"For Liberty University to deprive the College Democrats of the same opportunity as College Republicans . . . violates that fundamental principle of fairness and teaches the students the wrong message," Kaine said.
Terry McAuliffe, one of the Democrats running for governor in the June 9 primary, organized a conference call with reporters yesterday to denounce the school's actions.
"People are tired of the division," McAuliffe said.
The other Democratic gubernatorial candidates, R. Creigh Deeds and Brian Moran, released statements condemning the decision.
"Restricting free speech and discouraging students from participating in the political process are not what our colleges and universities should be about," Deeds, a Bath County senator, said.
"Colleges are supposed to be a marketplace of ideas -- even ones you might not agree with," said Jesse Ferguson, Moran's spokesman.
McAuliffe compared the Liberty flap to Republican gubernatorial nominee Robert F. McDonnell's opposition to Obama receiving an honorary degree from the University of Notre Dame because of his abortion views.
McDonnell, who attended Notre Dame and spoke at Liberty in March, said through his spokesman that he "personally disagrees" with Liberty's decision but that because it is a private school its leaders can make their own decisions.
"Bob McDonnell supports academic freedom and believes universities should be a place for free intellectual discussion and discourse," Tucker Martin, McDonnell's spokesman, said.
Liberty, which has 11,500 residential students and 35,000 online students, has had a College Republicans club for years. The College Democrats formed in October and worked aggressively to elect Obama president.
The college officials "let the Liberty University College Republicans stay on campus, but they don't let us," said Brian Diaz, 18, the club's president. "Sounds like censorship to me."
Diaz was informed in a May 15 e-mail from Student Affairs Vice President Mark Hine that the club, which has about 30 members, will no longer be able to use Liberty's name or be eligible for funding because of the party's stand on abortion rights and gay rights issues.
Mathew D. Staver, dean of the university's school of law, said Liberty recently came up with new guidelines for all student groups. On May 15, a campuswide review began. The recognition of only the Democratic club has been revoked. Staver said the students can continue to meet in certain locations on campus, and school officials have encouraged them to find a parent organization that supports a "pro-life, pro-family" platform.
Maria Childress, the club's adviser and an administrative assistant at the school, said she is trying to appeal the decision to Falwell.
Katie Naranjo, president of the College Democrats of America, said, "It's astonishing that in the 21st century an institution for higher education would demand a student group be thrown off campus for their political views."