RICHMOND — The Federal Election Commission has cleared the Rev. Jerry Falwell of a charge that he broke federal election law by urging followers last summer to re-elect President Bush, Mr. Falwell’s attorney said Monday.
Mr. Falwell, the founder of television’s long-running “Old Time Gospel Hour,” was exercising a “press exemption” that gives him the same right to speak on politics as publishers, columnists and editorialists, attorney Mathew D. Staver said in a press release.
Mr. Staver said the FEC notified him that it had ruled in Mr. Falwell’s favor by a vote of 6-0. The release also was published Monday on the Web site of Mr. Staver’s organization, Liberty Counsel.
“Dr. Falwell does not lose his right to personal expression each election cycle,” Mr. Staver said. “As a member of the media, the media outlets through which he communicates enjoy the protection of the First Amendment, just as much as The Washington Times.” There was no answer to calls to a telephone number for Mr. Staver.
A similar complaint against Mr. Falwell lodged last summer with the Internal Revenue Service still is pending, said Rob Boston of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which filed the claim. The IRS complaint is potentially more damaging than the FEC action because an adverse IRS ruling could jeopardize the tax-exempt status of some of Mr. Falwell’s holdings.
Mr. Falwell, founder of Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., and the defunct Moral Majority, told religious conservatives in his July 1, 2004, Internet newsletter Falwell Confidential that “voting for principle this year means voting for the re-election of George W. Bush. The alternative, in my mind, is simply unthinkable.”
He continued: “However, simply voting may not be enough. I believe it is the responsibility of every political conservative, every evangelical Christian, every pro-life Catholic, every traditional Jew, every Reagan Democrat, and everyone in between to get serious about re-electing President Bush.”
The Campaign Legal Center complained to the FEC nearly a year ago that Mr. Falwell and two allied, tax-exempt nonprofit organizations broke election laws by explicitly advocating the election of a federal candidate.
The complaint said Mr. Falwell, along with Jerry Falwell Ministries and the Liberty Alliance, also improperly urged supporters to back the Campaign for Working Families, a political action committee aiding Bush’s re-election.