Falwell's legacy building Conservative pastor wants to build ma
Saturday, June 15, 2002
LYNCHBURG, Va. -- The Rev. Jerry Falwell pulls the wheel hard right, sweat budding across his cheeks as he guides the Chevy Suburban around potholes in the dirt road.
It's a rough drive to the mountaintop overlooking his 4,300-acre property. But the view, he promises, is worth the trip.
Sprawled below is the red brick of Liberty University and his beloved Thomas Road Baptist Church. Now imagine, he says, golf courses, recreation centers, apartment complexes. Maybe a ski lift up the mountain, maybe one of those revolving restaurants on top.
At 68, Falwell thinks often about what will remain when he's gone. If he gets his way in federal court this summer, the conservative pastor will leave his most visible legacy twinkling below -- a master-planned Christian community where members of his flock can live from "birth to antiquity."
"You'll never have to leave this place," Falwell says. "You can come in at age 2, in our early learning center ... age 5 into our kindergarten, age 6 through 18 in our elementary and high school. Then on to Liberty University for four years."
For fun, kids can go to Falwell's Camp Hydaway summer camp. If residents develop a drinking problem, there's his Elim Home for Alcohol and Drug-Addicted Men. If they have an unwanted pregnancy, their families can send them to the Liberty Godparent Home for Unwed Mothers.
When Falwell followers turn 55, they would be eligible to move nearby into Liberty Village, a 1,135-unit retirement center with its own markets, putting green, chapel and associate pastor from Falwell's church. The retirement condos, which run from $80,000 to $300,000, are under construction just outside Lynchburg.
Taking off his glasses, Falwell pauses to dispel what he already expects to be misinterpretations of his dream.
"We have no intentions of building a 'compound' -- no wall is going to go up," he says. "If a non-Christian family applied, they would be accepted."
How about homosexual couples?
"That wouldn't work," Falwell says with a chuckle. While he can't legally bar anyone from living in his community, "they wouldn't be comfortable here -- all these Christians would be witnessing to them."
Already, Falwell has built much of his community and employs as many people as the city government. With donations now picking up since Sept. 11, he'll break ground on the putting green and recreation center this summer.
What's missing right now is the spiritual -- and legal -- connection to Thomas Road Baptist Church. Virginia's constitution prohibits churches from owning more than 15 acres of land within a city. Since the 1950s, the restrictions have forced Falwell to keep his church legally separate from the ministry and hold its related operations under a handful of separate.
Combining the entire ministry under one board of deacons not only would simplify things, Falwell says, but it also would give him piece of mind that his ministry won't fall to pieces after he's gone.
"As long as I'm living, it makes no difference. But there will be another pastor one day," Falwell says.
Falwell stops the Suburban at a clearing and delicately steps onto the dirt in his navy suit and leather dress shoes. His fleshy, grandfather's face is flush under the sun.
"From there to there, as far as the eye can see," Falwell says, pointing across the horizon outlining his property.
Falwell grew up just a few miles away with his twin brother, hunting rabbits and squirrels with a double-gauge shotgun his father gave him when he was 10. Later, as he battled abortionists, homosexuals and liberals of all stripes, he accumulated tracts of land surrounding his church.
Since his Moral Majority folded in 1989, close associates say Falwell has increasingly focused his attention here in central Virginia, consolidating his ministry and making good on an early dream to build a community for his followers.
"He used to be so wrapped up in the national scene," says Lynchburg Mayor Carl B. Hutcherson Jr. "More recently, he's more amenable, more available to the local community. I think he has made a decision to get involved."
Falwell successfully sued in federal court this year to force the state corporation commission to grant him a charter. A judge is expected to rule on the land limitation sometime this summer.
A.E. Dick Howard, a University of Virginia law professor and former counsel to the General Assembly, agreed with the ruling and told The Associated Press in April that he recommended both laws be removed while supervising the 1971 revision of Virginia's constitution.
"To allow anybody to not incorporate based on religion was on its face a violation of the First Amendment," Howard says. "That's an easy call."
If he prevails, Falwell envisions a community where his schools, neighborhoods and recreation facilities are all legally tied to Thomas Road. And the church would begin construction on a 12,000-seat auditorium next to the university.