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National | Operation Rescue leaders square off against Jerry Falwell, accusing his university bookstore of purveying porn. But have the activists taken one liberty too many?

Issue: "Paying with your life," April 4, 1998

Operation Rescue leaders sat fuming in a Lynchburg restaurant on a Friday late last month, after watching a pressure tactic backfire. After blast-faxing press releases that accused Liberty University officials of selling child pornography and denouncing chancellor Jerry Falwell, leaders found themselves defending OR's credibility and common sense. OR leaders were angry that Mr. Falwell has failed publicly to support OR director Flip Benham, who sits in a Lynchburg jail for trespassing at a local school. They seemed to punish Liberty by drawing attention to the fact that the university's bookstore is run by Barnes & Noble, the bookseller that has been indicted on child pornography charges-for selling books such as Age of Innocence by photographer David Hamilton. Attempting to make the Barnes & Noble connection more compelling, OR leader Keith Tucci tried to obtain from the Liberty bookstore a copy of Mr. Hamilton's book so that he could display it at a press conference. The book is not on sale there, so Mr. Tucci attempted to special-order it. Two days after he placed the order, the bookstore manager canceled it and refunded Mr. Tucci's deposit. But that didn't stop Mr. Tucci from bringing a copy of Age of Innocence for the cameras. Although the book had been obtained elsewhere, he and other OR leaders accused Jerry Falwell of purveying kiddy porn. "It is a sad commentary that Dr. Falwell would not condemn child pornographers, and in fact he invited them onto his Liberty University campus," Mr. Tucci declared in one press release. "Yet he has condemned Rev. Flip Benham for preaching the gospel at E.C. Glass High School. We ask Dr. Falwell to seek God and repent for this horrible injustice." A day later, other OR leaders went further. "It shows the lack of integrity and hypocrisy of Dr. Falwell," says Pat Mahoney into a cellular phone, plugging one ear to block out the restaurant noises. "There is a core integrity problem with his ministry. We don't want to get into a spitting match, though." It's a little late for that hope. Liberty spokesman Mark DeMoss says OR members embarrassed themselves by holding up a copy of Age of Innocence at the press conference. "They didn't buy it here, they didn't see it here, and child pornography has never been stocked or sold at Liberty University," he says. But Mr. DeMoss says school officials realize there's a problem with having Barnes & Noble's educational division run the bookstore. "We're as troubled as OR is about Barnes & Noble, and we're looking at the contract." He compares it to the school's contract with the Marriott corporation, which handles the food services. "Marriott sells liquor in its other enterprises, so should we not use them? I don't know. These are complicated issues in today's corporate environment." Still, it's clear-cut enough for Liberty to promote LifeLine long-distance, with an ad in the school's magazine encouraging supporters to ditch AT&T, MCI, and Sprint because of their corporate policies. A portion of the revenues generated by LifeLine customers goes to Jerry Falwell Ministries. OR leaders say they went to Mr. Falwell privately about Barnes & Noble, and leaders provided a copy of a letter dated Dec. 1, 1997, from Flip Benham to Liberty president John Borek. "If Barnes & Noble continues to distribute the fuel used to fire the flames of pedophilic lust, we at Liberty University must disarm it by taking up our cross and following in the footsteps of our Lord Jesus." Barnes & Noble's educational division runs the bookstores at 300 colleges across the nation. A quick survey of other Christian colleges shows that many schools (Regent, Calvin, Wheaton, and Gordon College, for example) operate their own bookstores, but outside agreements are not uncommon (Covenant College uses Follett). OR leaders realized that the Barnes & Noble issue was eclipsed by their questionable tactics. "This is not entrapment," Mr. Tucci claims. "We wanted evidence. Based on Dr. Falwell's past record, we knew we would need evidence." Added Mr. Mahoney, "It's like the White House, a pattern of denial." That accusation left Mr. DeMoss at a loss for words. Mr. Benham has been in a Lynchburg jail since February 18 on a trespassing charge. He was indicted and then convicted after holding a demonstration in November at the city's E.C. Glass High School, part of OR's "Going to the Gates" program, which attempts to bring a pro-life message and a call to repentance and belief in Christ to public high schools. Mr. Benham was on school property, but never entered the school building. Grand jury testimony, however, placed some demonstrators inside the building, although OR spokesmen deny it. Mr. Benham was sentenced to six months in jail. More than 150 Liberty students took part in that demonstration after Mr. Benham made an appeal during a Liberty chapel service the day before. But Liberty officials, Mr. Falwell especially, denounced the demonstration. "I was a supporter of Operation Rescue years before the Rev. Flip Benham was involved," Mr. Falwell said through Mr. DeMoss, who notes that the former Moral Majority leader gave $10,000 of his own money to help defend OR founder Randall Terry. "But when Operation Rescue moved their battleground from abortion clinics to public schools, I could not lend my support to such behavior or tactics." All of Mr. Falwell's commentary on the matter came through spokesman DeMoss; Mr. Falwell was unavailable for an interview. Through his spokesman, Mr. Falwell expressed dismay that OR would target the schools and term them "the very gates of Hell"-when Liberty has spent years building relationships with school and city officials. Liberty students do their student teaching in those schools, he says, and Thomas Road Baptist Church has been involved in the Lynchburg community for 40 years. After the demonstration, Mr. DeMoss says Mr. Falwell contacted the city about helping to pay for the police overtime the demonstration necessitated-and he sent in a check for $700. That was too much for OR leaders. "Dr. Falwell abandoned Flip Benham," says Mr. Tucci. So OR responded with "Operation: Restore Liberty," in an attempt to link Mr. Benham's imprisonment to Liberty's contract with Barnes & Noble. "The connection is that both Mr. Benham and Barnes & Noble were invited onto the Liberty campus," says Mr. Tucci. "The issues are kissing cousins." OR leaders are especially critical of Mr. Falwell for "not supporting Flip's family," and not working to get Mr. Benham released. Mr. DeMoss points out that Liberty has given financial support to Mr. Benham's sons. The two Benham twins, Jason and David, are both at Liberty on baseball scholarships, worth about $80,000 combined. And there's evidence that Mr. Falwell has been working quietly behind the scenes to get Mr. Benham sprung. The problem with Mr. Benham's imprisonment, Liberty officials say, is that he doesn't want out. "All he has to do is apologize-not for his message, just for trespassing," explains Mr. DeMoss. In fact, a letter from Judge Richard Miller to Mr. Benham's attorneys confirms this. "I do not expect or suggest that the defendants should apologize for the message that they were attempting to convey," the judge writes. "It is the defendants' conduct and not their right to convey their message that the Court found intolerable." But Mr. Benham maintains he was never disruptive, and left school property when asked. No arrests were made on the day of the protest, but a grand jury later indicted Mr. Benham and a Liberty student, John Reyes, for trespassing and demonstrating without a permit. The student is out of jail now and is appealing his conviction. Mr. Benham is in jail because, although he's appealing, he won't post an appeal bond. The "Release Flip Benham" rallies are sparsely attended and are not winning the group any allies, even in a city whose mayor runs a Christian bookstore. The group's accusations against Mr. Falwell are sure to lose it even more support. "Jerry Falwell has been accused of many things during his 40 years of public ministry," says Mr. DeMoss. "But I can't recall anyone accusing him of lacking commitment to the cause of protecting the unborn and opposition to abortion in America and around the world. When Flip Benham was sentenced to six months, Rev. Falwell made it clear he believed the sentence to be excessive. He also made it clear, as he has for years, that those who engage in acts of civil disobedience must be willing to accept the consequences of such acts." Can this rift ever be healed? Mr. Benham has apologized for attacks on the character of Mr. Falwell. "He's done more for the gospel and the kingdom of Jesus Christ than all of us put together," he said in a pay-phone interview from jail. "Still, he has no business dealing with Barnes & Noble." Mr. Benham says he apologized to Jonathan Falwell, the chancellor's son, and says he received Jonathan's forgiveness. Mr. DeMoss also leaves a door open: "If the group is genuinely interested in finding constructive ways to reduce abortion in America, we will join in their effort as we have in the past." But Mr. Tucci and others are not backing down. In a five-page fax sent last week, the attacks were renewed, again calling for Mr. Falwell to "repent." Mr. Mahoney said, "There's only one issue here, and that's the fact that Barnes & Noble is on the campus. This is not a vindictive attack. It's about integrity."

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