In her first weeks as secretary of the Department of Education, Betsy DeVos faced an extraordinary amount of scrutiny — both for her family’s history of supporting homophobic legislation and her lack of qualifications. A group of students attempted to block DeVos from entering a Washington middle school shortly after her confirmation.
But DeVos, a charter school advocate with a history of donating to anti-gay causes, isn’t the only education appointee that should worry LGBT people, as well as just about everyone else who wants safe, affirming education for America’s youth. Liberty University's president, Jerry Falwell Jr., who has been tapped by the Trump administration to lead a task force on reforming higher ed, is a nightmare waiting to happen. His appointment — to an undisclosed advisory position — will put at risk every student across the U.S. already vulnerable to harm. With DeVos and Falwell at the helm, all children will be left behind.
Although Falwell has been unavailable for comment since his role in the administration was announced, a spokesman for the evangelical campus founded by his late father, Jerry, spoke on his behalf. The Liberty representative told NBC News that the right-wing leader’s goal will be to clean up the “overregulation and micromanagement” of U.S. colleges. How does Falwell Jr. plan to do that? By gutting sexual assault response programs at universities.
“Falwell . . . wants to cut federal rules on investigating and reporting sexual assault under Title IX, the federal law that bars sexual discrimination in education,” Religion News has reported. “The Liberty University head believes on-campus sexual assault investigations are best left to police.”
In 2011 the administration of President Barack Obama issued a “Dear Colleague” letter to universities introducing new regulations under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 to encourage universities to take measures to prevent on-campus sexual assaults. Whereas campus rape cases can often drag on months without resolution, the letter advised colleges that most incidents should be fully investigated and resolved within 60 days. Rather than basing decisions on a “clear and convincing evidence,” the guidance put forward a standard for judging cases: a “preponderance of the evidence.”
During her confirmation hearing, DeVos dodged a question about whether she would uphold those changes, arguing that commenting on the subject would be “premature,” and Falwell’s background on sexual assault is troubling.
Liberty University hired Ian McCaw, the former athletic director for Baylor University, in the midst of an ongoing rape scandal at his former college. Jasmin Hernandez, a student at the university, claimed McCaw knew that one of his star athletes, Tevin Elliott, had a history of sexually assaulting women and ignored his record. Hernandez further alleged that after not being made accountable for his prior actions, the football player went on to rape her. In a press release, Falwell Jr. personally praised the hiring of McCaw, saying that his example “fits perfectly with where we see our sports program going.”
If it surprises you that Falwell Jr. would applaud someone accused of covering up sexual abuse, know that the Liberty University president also once told CNN’s Erin Burnett that he would vote for a presidential candidate found guilty of rape. When asked about accusations from more than 10 women that Trump, then a White House hopeful, had groped them without consent, Falwell Jr. said, “We’re not electing a pastor. We’re electing a president.”
But if you’re looking for an indication of how Falwell Jr., who was first offered the secretary position before turning it down, would advise the Department of Education, his university’s anti-LGBT history offers a sterling example.
Falwell’s father, famously known as the face of the Moral Majority movement in the 1980s, created the nonprofit, Christian institution in 1971 to uphold his far-right conservative values. Liberty University, based in Lynchburg, Virginia, and founded in 1971, espouses Creationism. Kevin Roose, who spent a semester undercover at Liberty, wrote in New York magazine that prior to the elder Falwell’s death in 2007, he had instructed members of the student body that should the culture at Liberty ever become liberal, they “should return to campus and burn it down.”
As Roose claimed, Liberty University's student body has become increasingly progressive in recent years, but the college has not. The Baptist university’s honor code strictly forbids “homosexual conduct or the encouragement or advocacy of any form of sexual behavior that would undermine the Christian identity or faith mission of the University.” That policy boils down to a simple mandate: You can be gay at Liberty but can’t act on it.
The Christian Post has reported that students found to be in violation of the honor code face a “$500 fine and 30 hours of disciplinary community service.”
Liberty University has come under fire in recent years for denying discounted tuition to military spouses in same-sex relationships. The university charged $590 per credit in 2015, but anyone in a legally recognized relationship with a member of the armed forces could pay just $275 — at least, as long as they were heterosexual. School policy states the credit is “available to 'spouses' as defined by Liberty University as a husband or wife of a service member who together are in state-sanctioned marriage and are natural-born members of the opposite sex.”
In addition to openly discriminating against same-sex couples, Liberty University removed a chapter about the origins of human sexuality from the textbook of its Psychology 101 course.
Responding to claims that deleting the content constituted homophobic bias, Falwell Jr. claimed in a press release that nothing “could . . . be further from the truth.” In a clever bit of pivoting, he added, “At Liberty, we believe firmly in academic freedom for our faculty and a commitment to the free and open exchange of ideas. This is in stark contrast to many major universities where students are often ridiculed in the classroom for expressing ideas that faculty deem to be politically incorrect and protests often result in speakers being disinvited from appearing because of their viewpoints.”
The second-generation evangelical leader has attempted to market himself as being more compassionate to the LGBT community than his father, a notoriously anti-gay bigot. The elder Falwell repeatedly compared queer people to alcoholics and adulterers and blamed society’s tolerance of homosexuality for the 9/11 attacks. His son, meanwhile, applauded Trump for mentioning LGBT people at the Republican National Convention, saying that he backed the his platform “100 percent.”
That statement, while seemingly supportive of the LGBT community, isn’t as affirming as it sounds. As many pointed out throughout the election, Trump didn’t have an LGBT platform, and the few stances he adopted changed throughout the race. After North Carolina's legislature passed House Bill 2 in March, Trump criticized the notoriously anti-LGBT law, which prevents transgender people from using the bathroom that most closely corresponds with their gender identity. Then shortly afterward, Trump flip-flopped, saying he supports the rights of states to set their own restroom policies.
Falwell Jr. sat on Trump’s religious advisory board, a group that helped push him to the right on issues on which he was once viewed as being socially liberal. That board was a Who’s Who of anti-gay figures on the far right. It included Robert Jeffress, a Southern Baptist preacher who believes LGBT people are pedophiles; Ralph Reed, the former head of the Christian Coalition who claims hate crime laws are designed to criminalize the Bible; and Ronnie Floyd, who wrote an entire book on how the so-called gay agenda is “dividing America.”
For someone who believes Liberty University doesn’t discriminate against gay people, Falwell Jr. sure likes to hang out with bigots. His college also works closely with Liberty Counsel, the right-wing law firm that defended Rowan County clerk Kim Davis, the Kentucky woman was briefly jailed two years ago for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.
The Liberty president will now work closely with a woman who has spent her entire life fighting against equal rights for LGBT people. As I previously wrote for Salon, Betsy DeVos has a long track record of donating to anti-gay organizations, including the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy, a group that has referred to the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision on marriage equality as a “fatwa.” Reports claim that DeVos, whose father and father-in-law are both anti-LGBT activists, gave at least $300,000 to campaigns in Florida and Michigan to limit the constitutional definition of marriage to one man and one woman.
If DeVos plans to roll back recent gains on LGBT student rights under President Obama, there’s no reason to believe Falwell would stop it. Last year the Obama administration issued guidance to schools advising them to allow trans students to use the restroom of their choice.
Having forces in the Education Department who have worked to dismantle LGBT protections in their path could be devastating for these vulnerable populations.