It was no surprise when presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee wangled an invitation to speak at the late TV evangelist Jerry Falwell's Liberty University.
Huckabee, a Southern Baptist preacher and former Arkansas governor, has counted on the support of evangelical Christians to boost his campaign for the White House, and the Lynchburg, Va., school is ground zero for the Religious Right. Any Republican candidate who hopes to win conservative Christian votes tries for an appearance at Liberty.
It was surprising, however, when after the Nov. 28 address, Liberty Chancellor Jerry Falwell Jr. sent an email to supporters endorsing Huckabee's candidacy. Written on Liberty University letterhead and dubbed a "Liberty News Alert," the Dec. 1 email went to thousands on the "Falwell Confidential" contact list.
Wrote Falwell, "Recently, Governor Mike Huckabee called to brief me on the progress of his campaign for the presidency. I invited the Governor to speak to Liberty University students in Convocation on November 28. He graciously accepted.
"I was so impressed with the Governor's sincerity and his positions on the issues that are important to conservative Christians," Falwell continued, "that I personally endorsed Governor Huckabee before he left Lynchburg."
Added the school official, "My father strongly supported Governor Huckabee when no one thought that he had any chance to succeed in the presidential race. I believe with all my heart that, if my father had witnessed Governor Huckabee's surge in the polls and his ascension to first place in the Iowa polls, he would have endorsed Governor Huckabee without hesitation."
What was surprising was not Falwell's endorsement but the form it took. By sending out the endorsement on University letterhead in his official capacity as chancellor, Falwell clearly violated federal tax law.
As Americans United for Separation of Church and State noted in a complaint filed with the Internal Revenue Service, Liberty is a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) institution, and as such, it is barred from involvement in partisan politics.
Wrote Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn, "Falwell has the right, as a private individual, to endorse Huckabee. He does not have the right to use university channels, including an official announcement from the chancellor's office on school letterhead, to disseminate that information."
Lynn urged Lois G. Lerner, director of the IRS's Exempt Organizations Division, to conduct an inquiry.