Your tax dollars are building the religious right’s empire

President Donald Trump attends the Liberty University Commencement Ceremony and delivers remarks Saturday, May 13, 2017, Lynchburg, Virginia.
President Donald Trump attends the Liberty University Commencement Ceremony and delivers remarks Saturday, May 13, 2017, Lynchburg, Virginia. Photo: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

You may have seen the ads for Liberty University Online and realized that this is the conservative Christian college headed by Trump defender Jerry Falwell Jr. What you probably didn’t realize is that your tax dollars have helped Falwell expand his empire.

And Falwell’s enterprise is not the only homophobic organization to benefit from the federal government. Focus on the Family has also worked the federal bureaucracy to ensure that it is now classified a church by the IRS.

An in-depth investigation by The New York Times and ProPubica found that Liberty University is now the second-largest online provider of online education, and it is relying on federal student loans and grants to fuel its growth. The upshot is that Liberty University is now a $1 billion enterprise, with the bulk of that revenue coming from taxpayer-funded sources.

Liberty Online has several advantages that many other online education purveyors do not. It’s nonprofit, which means when the Obama administration cracked down on for-profit education outfits, Liberty was spared.

But Liberty Online’s distinguishing characteristic is that it spends astonishingly little on students. The school is spending an average of $2,609 per student. It’s main competitor, the University of Phoenix, spends $4,000. A brick-and-mortar school like Notre Dame spends more than $27,000 per student.

As the investigation shows, the skimpiness in spending is reflected in the quality of education. The story is filled with anecdotes from students who say instructors were ill-prepared, exams were open-book, and complaints were countered with calls to submit to God’s will. According to one former teacher at the Liberty University’s campus, “the motivation behind the growth [of the online school] seems to be entirely economic.”

Indeed, the numbers support that theory. Liberty racked in a massive $215 million in net on nearly $1 billion in revenue in 2016, making it one of the most profitable non-profits in the country. Falwell’s salary is $1 million.

Falwell makes no excuses for his approach. The profits from the online school keep the regular institution afloat. “All that is, is ensuring the future of the university,” he said.

Falwell’s coziness with the Trump administration is also paying profits. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is expected to roll back a number of regulations instituted by the Obama administration to police online education providers. Falwell provided input, of course. “A lot of what we sent them is actually what got implemented,” he said.

Liberty University isn’t the only institution to wag its finger at the federal government while bending it to its benefit. The right-wing Focus on the Family somehow convinced the IRS that it is a church, even though by almost any objective standard, it’s a religious nonprofit.

RightWingWatch has published the correspondence between the group and the IRS. When it comes to novel arguments, the Focus on the Family lawyers can’t be beat. What you and I would call employees, they call “ministers”–and “congregation.” What we would call work, they call “worship.” Best of all, what anyone else would call a cafeteria is a “place of workship” because services are held there.

For whatever reason, the IRS decided to buy this line of hogswallop. The main benefit to Focus on the Family is that it no longer has to make its IRS filings public, so it can hide its activities better. But there are financial benefits as well. Employees (in their role as ministers) would now be able to deduct housing allowances from their taxes.

So as the tax deadline passes, just remember: the very organizations that would deprive you of your rights will be more than happy to take your hard-earned money.

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