Lawsuit accuses Liberty University of ‘enabling on-campus rapes’

Religion News Service - Missouri School of Journalism [Columbia MO]

July 20, 2021

By Emily McFarlan Miller

A new lawsuit against Liberty University claims the Lynchburg, Virginia-based evangelical Christian school has “intentionally created a campus environment” that makes sexual assaults and rapes more likely to occur.

The complaint points a finger at the “weaponization” of Liberty’s student honor code, known as the Liberty Way, which it claims makes it “difficult or impossible” for students to report sexual violence. It also claims such violence, particularly by male student athletes, was excused while the women who reported it faced retaliation.

In a written statement, Liberty University said it was looking into the allegations, which it called “deeply troubling, if they turn out to be true.”

“Many of the claims are the complete opposite of how the University’s policies and procedures were designed to operate over the years,” according to the statement provided to Religion News Service.

The suit, brought by 12 women who chose to remain anonymous, was filed Tuesday (July 20) in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York and first reported by ABC 13 News in Lynchburg. The women are said to include former Liberty employees and students and one woman who attended a summer camp on the school’s campus as a minor.

Liberty was aware its “policies and procedures, as written and implemented, were enabling on-campus rapes,” according to the lawsuit.

Some of the women, all identified as Jane Doe in the suit, allegedly were discouraged from reporting they had been assaulted because they were told they would be disciplined for violating the Liberty Way, according to the lawsuit.

Some women who reported their assaults to Liberty’s Title IX office or campus police allegedly were subjected to investigations that presumed they had consented to sex unless they could prove otherwise, the suit said.

Some allegedly were fined or penalized under the honor code, which the lawsuit claims has discouraged other victims from coming forward.

“The Liberty Way and its weaponization by Liberty University, as well as Liberty University’s well-documented pattern of discrimination against women victims and in favor of male assailants, created an atmosphere on campus that was permeated with discriminatory intimidation, ridicule and insult that was sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of the education and create a sexually hostile environment” for the plaintiffs, according to the complaint.

A sign marks an entrance to Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, March 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)
A sign marks an entrance to Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, March 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Steve Helber, File)

The Liberty Way includes guidelines for students’ dress and entertainment and does not permit “sexual relations outside of a biblically ordained marriage between a natural-born man and a natural-born woman.” Disciplinary measures for violating the honor code include points, fines, community service and expulsion.

The code also prohibits sexual harassment, discrimination and assault.

In its statement, Liberty noted that the honor code includes an “amnesty policy” to encourage victims to report any assault or discrimination without fear of discipline for their involvement in activities such as drinking or extramarital sex.

“It would be heartbreaking if those efforts had the results claimed in this lawsuit,” the statement said.

“We will immediately look into each of these claims to determine what needs to be done to make things right, if they turn out to be true. Because the claims are made anonymously and go back many years, in one case over two decades, it will take some time to sort through.”

The 12 alleged cases include unwanted touching and harassment by a co-worker and rapes by both strangers and acquaintances. One student alleges that she was threatened with expulsion if she didn’t marry her boyfriend after becoming pregnant.

In one case included in the lawsuit, a woman identified as Jane Doe 12, who had attended a debate camp at Liberty in summer 2000 when she was 15 years old, said she was grabbed by a man in a women’s dormitory and carried into a shower, then thrown into a chair in an atrium and grabbed again. She held him off with her feet while he groped her legs and breasts, then bit him when he tried to strangle her, according to the suit.

When Jane Doe 12 called the Liberty University Police Department, she allegedly was forced to ride to the police station in the same car as her attacker, where she allegedly was accused of fabricating the assault and told if she did not withdraw her claim, she would be criminally charged with filing a false report.

She alleges that she was held for eight hours without food or drink, and neither her mother nor a child psychiatrist was contacted. She also was allegedly photographed while naked by a female debate coach and required to wash her hands, destroying any DNA evidence that may have been captured under her fingernails during the struggle.

She said her assailant turned out to be Jesse Matthew, who later was convicted of murdering two female students at Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia, according to the suit.

The women are being represented by attorney John Larkin of Gawthrop Greenwood, PC, which has offices in West Chester, Pennsylvania, and Wilmington, Delaware.