Liberty University's football stadium is empty as students were welcomed back to the university's campus, Tuesday March 24 , 2020, in Lynchburg, Va. Officials in Lynchburg, said Tuesday they were fielding complaints and concerns about the hundreds of students that have returned from their spring break to Liberty University, where President Jerry Falwell Jr. has welcomed them back amid the coronavirus pandemic. Credit: Steve Helber | AP

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RICHMOND, Virginia — Liberty University has profited from the COVID-19 pandemic by refusing to refund thousands of dollars in room and board and other fees owed to students after the school moved classes online last month, a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday alleges.

The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Lynchburg accuses the university — one of the nation’s largest and most prominent evangelical institutions — of purporting to remain open so it could refuse to return fees paid by students and their parents for the remainder of the spring semester.

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The lawsuit also accuses Liberty and its president, Jerry Falwell Jr., of putting students at risk by telling students they were welcome to return to campus following spring break in March.

The suit cites comments and tweets made by Falwell in which he downplayed the seriousness of the pandemic and implied that the government shutdowns were an attempt to hurt President Donald Trump politically.

The lawsuit said that despite efforts to downplay the pandemic, the university stopped providing services and activities by moving classes online, closing its campus to visitors, prohibiting gatherings of 10 or more people and closing indoor recreation and fitness centers.

“In other words, the University’s statement that it is ‘open’ is an illusion being put forth to try to keep money that should be returned to students and their families,” the lawsuit said.

In a statement, Liberty said it has “tirelessly attempted to balance the needs of students, employees, and the community as it has navigated through the unprecedented health challenges presented by COVID-19.”

“Each of Liberty’s changes in operations and modes of delivery has been required by governmental officials, a fact the complaint omits. That fact legally excuses Liberty’s adjustments and leaves the plaintiffs without a legal case,” the statement said.

The lawsuit focuses on the week of March 16, when students were on spring break. While many colleges around the country were announcing campus closures, Liberty initially planned to continue on-campus instruction. But after Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam restricted gatherings of more than 100, Liberty announced it would transition most classes to online beginning on March 23.

Liberty officials told residential students in a March 20 email that they were “welcome” to either stay in place or return to campus, where it said various safety measures had been put in place to avoid concentrations of people. That message contradicted actions by many other colleges and universities urging students to stay home.

Officials in Lynchburg, where Liberty’s campus is located, said they fielded complaints about hundreds of students who returned to the campus after spring break.

The lawsuit filed Tuesday has just one plaintiff — identified only as Student A — but seeks certification as a class-action suit on behalf of other students who want the university to refund the unused portion of fees they paid for room and board and other on-campus services, said attorney Adam Levitt.

“We filed this lawsuit because we believe that Liberty’s effort to profit from the COVID-19 pandemic is wrong. It’s particularly hypocritical in light of the values upon which the university says that it’s based,” Levitt said.

Levitt said he hasn’t yet calculated how much money each student is owed, but he said it would be “in the thousands” for each student. Liberty said it has offered a $1,000 credit to students who opted to move out of residence halls.

“Liberty’s less-populated and more-frequently sanitized campus living environment will be maintained for those students who chose it as their safest option,” the statement said.

As colleges and universities around the country have moved classes online because of the coronavirus, they’ve had varied responses to requests for fee refunds. Some announced prorated room and board refunds quickly, including Harvard and Smith College.

Levitt’s firm filed a lawsuit last month against the Arizona Board of Regents for refusing to refund fees paid by students at the University of Arizona, Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University.

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