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Liberty U’s Falwell takes leave after social media uproar

LYNCHBURG, VA - MAY 13: Jerry Falwell, President of Liberty University, speaks during a commencement at Liberty University May 13, 2017 in Lynchburg, Virginia. President Donald Trump is the first sitting president to speak at Liberty's commencement since George H.W. Bush spoke in 1990. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Va. (AP) — Jerry Falwell Jr. took an indefinite leave of absence Friday
as the leader of Liberty University, one of the nation’s top
evangelical Christian colleges, days after apologizing for a social
media post that caused an uproar even among fellow conservatives.

private university in Lynchburg, Virginia, gave no reason for Falwell’s
departure in a one-sentence announcement Friday afternoon. But it came
after Falwell’s apology earlier this week for a since-deleted photo he
posted online showing him with his pants unzipped, stomach exposed and
his arm around a young woman in a similar pose.

The statement
said the executive committee of Liberty’s board of trustees, acting on
behalf of the full board, met Friday and requested Falwell take leave as
president and chancellor, “to which he has agreed, effective

A high-profile supporter of President Donald Trump,
Falwell has served since 2007 as president of the university founded by
his evangelist father, the late Rev. Jerry Falwell.

He did not immediately return a call seeking comment. University spokesman Scott Lamb said he had no further comment.

In an interview this week with Lynchburg radio station WLNI,
Falwell said the woman in the photo was his wife’s assistant and that
the picture was taken during a “costume party” while on vacation.

of good friends visited us on the yacht,” the caption of the photo
said, in part. “I promise that’s just black water in my glass. It was a
prop only.”

He said the woman — who also had her midriff exposed —
was pregnant, couldn’t get her pants zipped and he imitated her, saying
it was all in “good fun.”

“I’ve apologized to everybody, and I’ve
promised my kids … I’m going to try to be a good boy from here on
out,” he told the interviewer.

On Thursday, Republican U.S. Rep.
Mark Walker of North Carolina, a pastor who previously taught at
Liberty, called Falwell’s behavior “appalling” and said he should

Besides Walker, some pastors who graduated from Liberty
spoke out this week calling for a change in leadership at the school.
Mark Davis, a Texas-based pastor, tweeted
that “the name of Christ and the reputation of Liberty will continue to
be dishonored” without action against Falwell by the board. Colby
Garman, a pastor who has served on the executive board of the Southern
Baptist Convention of Virginia, tweeted Monday that it was “bewildering” to see Falwell maintain the board’s support. He responded to Friday’s news with appreciation.

“How is this Jerry Falwell Jr. photo even real?” tweeted
conservative TV personality Meghan McCain, daughter of the late U.S.
Sen. John McCain. “Also if you’re running the largest Christian
university in America maybe don’t put photos of yourself on social media
with your pants undone on a yacht — with random women in bad wigs. So
gross, so hypocritical.”

The late Falwell founded Liberty in 1971
with just 154 students. Under the leadership of Falwell Jr., who is an
attorney and not a minister, Liberty has grown into a leading
evangelical university, with an immaculate campus and a significant
endowment. Students must follow a strict code of conduct that includes
modest dress and a ban on alcohol consumption.

In recent years,
Liberty has served as a regular speaking spot for ambitious Republicans
courting the young evangelical vote. U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz kicked off a
presidential campaign there in 2015.

Falwell was among the
earliest Christian conservatives to endorse Trump’s previous election
campaign. In late 2016 he told The Associated Press that Trump had
offered him the job of education secretary but that he turned it down
for personal reasons.

The vacation photo was the most recent in a
string of controversies dogging Falwell in recent years, in both his
role at Liberty and his personal life.

Last year, he settled a
federal lawsuit in Florida over a real estate venture that involved a
young Miami pool attendant, a case that drew national attention.

He more recently sparred
with Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam and local officials in Lynchburg over
his handling of coronavirus restrictions. He also faced stinging
criticism from a group of Black alumni who said in a letter that he should step down
after he mocked Virginia’s mask-wearing requirement in a tweet by
invoking a blackface scandal that engulfed Northam last year. Several
Black Liberty staff members resigned following the tweet, and several high-profile Black student-athletes announced transfer plans.

Friday, Pastors Chris Williamson, Eric Carroll, and Maina Mwaura, who
organized the June letter, issued a statement applauding the board’s

“Liberty University deeply impacted us as students and we hope that its leadership can return to a focus of training ‘young champions for Christ’ with Biblical conviction for the Gospel and justice,” the statement said.

Associated Press writers Alan Suderman and Elana Schor contributed to this report.