By Steve Gorman
(Reuters) – Jerry Falwell Jr., a leading evangelical ally of President Donald Trump, has taken an indefinite leave of absence from his posts as president and chancellor of Liberty University, the Christian school he has run for more than a decade, its board of trustees said on Friday.
Falwell’s departure, announced in a one-sentence statement from the board, came days after he had posted, then deleted, a Instagram photo of himself standing with his pants unzipped and an arm around a young woman, a drink in his other hand.
The woman’s pants were also partially undone.
The caption of the photo, a screenshot of which went viral after it was posted by a Houston Chronicle reporter on Sunday, read: “more vacation shots. Lots of good friends visited us on the yacht. I promise that’s just black water in my glass. It was a prop only.”
In an interview on Thursday with radio station WLNI-FM in Lynchburg, where the university is based, Falwell apologized and said the picture was staged as a good-natured joke.
The woman was his wife’ assistant, who is pregnant, he said, according a WLNI clip from the interview.
“She couldn’t get her pants zipped, and I was like trying to like … I had a pair of jeans I haven’t worn in a long time and, I couldn’t get mine zipped either. So, I just put my belly out like hers,” he told WLNI.
“I should never have put (the photo) up and embarrassed her. … I’ve apologized to everybody. I promised my kids I will try to be a good boy from here on out,” Falwell said.
The board moved on Friday to oust Falwell, issuing a statement that read: “The Executive Committee of Liberty University’s Board of Trustees, acting on behalf of the full Board, met today and requested that Jerry Falwell, Jr. take an indefinite leave of absence from his roles as President and Chancellor of Liberty University, to which he has agreed, effective immediately.”
No further details were given.
Falwell, who has emerged as a prominent supporter of Trump in evangelical Christian circles – an important constituency for the president – came under fire in April in a lawsuit brought by Liberty University students.
The complaint, filed against Falwell and the school, sought a refund of fees for room, board and other expenses due to restrictions placed on campus life arising from the coronavirus pandemic, which the students accused Falwell of downplaying.
He also has been dogged by a series of stories last year about his private dealings and his stewardship of Liberty, which was founded by his father, the Rev. Jerry Falwell, a powerful and outspoken figure in conservative politics for decades.
Among those stories – his ties to Trump’s convicted lawyer Michael Cohen; his business venture with a former Miami hotel pool attendant; and his role in steering a $1.2 million piece of university property to his personal fitness trainer.
He also came under scrutiny for emails, reviewed by Reuters in 2019, showing he regularly disparaged students, staff and parents in correspondence with Liberty administrators over the years. He became president of the school in 2008.
(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Daniel Wallis)