Jerry Falwell Jr., an early and prominent supporter of President Donald Trump, will take a leave of absence from leading Liberty University after posting a provocative photo to social media that drew widespread criticism, including from other evangelical leaders.
The school issued a brief statement late Friday saying that the executive committee of Liberty's board of trustees met earlier that day and requested that Falwell take an indefinite leave. That committee of eight people includes Falwell, according to the school's website. Falwell's brother, Jonathan Falwell, is also on the board of trustees.
In the photo Falwell posted on his Instagram account, he is standing with his pants unzipped and his midriff exposed next to a woman whose pants are also unzipped and whose midriff is bared. He is holding a glass of dark-colored liquid - which drew some notice online, because Liberty strictly bans students from drinking alcohol.
"More vacation shots. Lots of good friends visited us on the yacht," read the caption on the Instagram post. "I promise that's just black water in my glass. It was a prop only."
Speaking to the Lynchburg, Va., radio station WLNI, Falwell said the woman in the photo was his "wife's assistant" - and, he said, the inspiration for undoing his pants zipper and exposing his stomach.
"She's pregnant, so she couldn't get her pants up," he said as the host chuckled. "And I had on a pair of jeans that I hadn't worn in a long time, so I couldn't get mine zipped, either. And so I just put my belly out like hers."
"She's a sweetheart," he added, "and I should never have put it up and embarrassed her."
Falwell did not respond to requests for an interview. In a statement late Friday, Jerry Prevo, chairman of Liberty's board of trustees, said the board and Falwell "mutually agreed that it would be good for him to take an indefinite leave of absence."
"This was a decision that was not made lightly, and which factored the interests and concerns of everyone in the LU community, including students, parents, alumni, faculty, staff, leaders of the Church, as well as the Falwell family," Prevo said in the statement. "To support Jerry through this period, we ask that our entire community lift him up in prayer so he may be able to fulfill God's purpose for him and for Liberty University."
Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., a Southern Baptist minister and former Liberty instructor, called for Falwell's resignation Thursday, alluding to several scandals including the recent social media post, which has been deleted from Falwell's account but has been recirculated by many others.
"Jerry Falwell Jr's ongoing behavior is appalling," Walker, the vice chairman of the powerful House Republican Caucus, wrote on Twitter. "I'm convinced Falwell should step down."
Other evangelical leaders also openly criticized Falwell on social media.
Colby Garman, a pastor and executive committee member of the Southern Baptist Convention of Virginia, echoed Walker's call for Falwell to step down. Liberty graduate Dean Inserra, a megachurch pastor in Florida, urged the university board members to "show some courage." Bible teacher Beth Moore wrote, "I just want everybody to zip up their pants is all."
Since taking over as president of the school in 2007, Falwell has vastly expanded the size and scope of the university co-founded by his father, the televangelist Jerry Falwell Sr., in 1971.
It is now one of the largest private online universities in the country. The school claims to have more than 100,000 students, including about 16,000 who study on its Lynchburg, Va., campus.
The school's chapel has also become a pilgrimage site for many politicians, particularly GOP presidential contenders hoping to woo Christian conservatives.
Falwell was one of the first high-profile leaders in the evangelical world to endorse Trump in 2016. A former chairman of Liberty's executive committee, Mark DeMoss, resigned over the endorsement, saying Trump's insult-laden presidential campaign was a flagrant rejection of the values that Falwell Sr. espoused and that Liberty aims to promote.
After Trump's election, Falwell ramped up his attempts to silence any on-campus dissent from the school's staunch conservative positions, the former editor of Liberty's student newspaper wrote in an opinion piece for The Washington Post.
In an interview with The Post last year, Falwell said there was nothing Trump could do that would endanger his support or that of other conservative Christian leaders. "I can't imagine him doing anything that's not good for the country," he said.
Falwell has been at the center of other controversies in recent months. In May, he tweeted a photo of a face mask decorated with an image of a person in Ku Klux Klan robes and another in blackface, in an attempt to taunt Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, over his blackface scandal. Falwell deleted the tweet and apologized, but several of Black staff members and students left the school.
In March, Falwell received criticism when he allowed students to stay on campus during the coronavirus pandemic, despite promises to local officials that he would do otherwise, drawing condemnation and a class-action lawsuit.
Falwell faced his first notable controversy during a speech in 2015. At a university convocation, he said the San Bernardino, Calif., shooting that year would not have occurred if more people had concealed-carry permits to "end those Muslims before they walked in killing."
D.J. Jordan, a publicist who graduated from Liberty in 2002, said Falwell's previous controversial actions did not make the same waves as his Instagram post did this week. He said the school received more phone calls and emails from pastors around the country than it ever had before.
"This was a tipping point that was so obvious because there was photo evidence," he said. "It was like, here we are, being hypocritical, and we don't want our faith to be perceived that way."
Jordan, who played football at Liberty and met his wife there, said he gets strange looks when he says he went to Liberty since he is Black and works in Washington. Most people, he said, know about the school because they see Falwell on television. The board's quick decision Friday, he said, was shocking because the leaders have not reprimanded Falwell for his other controversial behavior.
"We never imagined the board taking this kind of discipline," he said.
"It sure is sobering," said Derek Rockey, 22, who is finishing his degree at Liberty after a term as student body president this past year. "It's not something that myself or any of my friends who are concerned about Liberty thought would happen."
He supports the board's decision, he said. "I do think, with all the events that have piled up, it makes sense," so that Liberty can restore the faith of the people who love the school. "The school's motto is 'Training champions for Christ,' " Rockey said. "People have been extremely concerned over the past months and years. . . . The school means so much for the Christian community."
Controversy has been building since 2015, he said, and he has heard a lot of support for the decision from other students, but he noted that the leave of absence is temporary. "It's good for President Falwell to take note of his actions, and for Liberty University to take note of what they want their university president to look like, act like.
"I am hopeful for the future," Rockey said. "I love Liberty, and I want Liberty to be a place for my kids to go to, too. I'll be praying for President Falwell, his family and the people around him."
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The Washington Post’s Nick Anderson and Teo Armus contributed to this report.