Liberty University police detain anti-Trump evangelical pastor who planned protest at school

Police then watched over students who prayed at an event he was supposed to attend.

Jerry Falwell Jr., president and chancellor of Liberty University, in 2013. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Norm Shafer).
Jerry Falwell Jr., president and chancellor of Liberty University, in 2013. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Norm Shafer).

Police at Liberty University, a conservative evangelical Christian college, detained an evangelical pastor on campus this week after he called for a protest of the school — and later, authorities kept a watchful eye on students who may be sympathetic to his cause.

Jonathan Martin, an evangelical pastor and author, detailed the incident in a Twitter thread Tuesday morning. Martin says he visited campus on Monday as a guest of the band JOHHNYSWIM, which was performing at the college. But according to Martin, when he was backstage in the green room with the band after the event, police suddenly apprehended him and “served” him “papers.”

The detention comes a few days after Martin used Twitter to call for followers to join him in a “time of praise and peaceful protest” at the college, where President Donald Trump spoke earlier this year.

Martin called the school “ground zero for the counterfeit faith that is sweeping many evangelical churches right now,” using the hashtag “#LiberateLiberty” to ask “students, alumni, pastors, church leaders, and people who simply love Jesus” to join him in “stand[ing] against the idolatry of nationalism & the politics of demonization in the name of Jesus Christ, & stand for the oppressed.”

Martin did not respond to ThinkProgress’ request for comment by press time.

In a lengthy statement provided to ThinkProgress, Liberty University insisted members of the school community “are always welcome to engage in peaceful debate, intellectual inquiry and protest,” but said this sentiment did not extend to Martin as he is not a student or faculty member.

“For public safety reasons, organized events by outside groups require advance notice and participating in the appropriate application process,” the statement read in part. “Given the late hour of the notice, the only effective way to prevent the unauthorized event from happening this morning was to issue a trespass warning to its organizer, Mr. Martin, last evening.”

The statement said the school’s concern was rooted in a “climate of protests associated with campuses across the country,” but did not elaborate on what that meant.

Police did more than remove Martin, however. Liberty student Dustin Wahl told ThinkProgress that campus police—including the police chief—also showed up to observe a group of roughly 15 students at 7:00 a.m. Tuesday morning as they prayed for the school. Martin originally intended to participate in the event, but could not attend due to being barred from campus.

“They [the police] were all kind of milling around, kept about 100 feet between us,” Wahl said. “After we prayed for 20 minutes or so they dispersed.”

Liberty representatives declined to comment further on the police presence, pointing back to the initial statement they provided to ThinkProgress.

Liberty University has long been a staple of conservative politics. More recently, however, the school has become associated with one politician in particular: President Donald Trump, who spoke at the school both during his campaign and after his election.

Liberty president Jerry Falwell, Jr. has been one of Trump’s most vocally loyal supporters ever since he after endorsed him in May 2016. When the Trump campaign was rocked by scandal following the release of a video showing the then-candidate bragging about sexual assault, Falwell condemned the comments but stood by Trump, blaming the release of the tape on a “conspiracy” of establishment GOP leaders. When the president became mired in controversy this summer for equating white supremacists to anti-racist counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, Falwell praised Trump’s comments as “bold” and “truthful.” The White House declined to provide surrogates to discuss the remarks with news agencies, but reportedly suggested Falwell as a surrogate instead.

The Trump administration’s near constant string of controversies have yet to shake Falwell’s willingness to back the president. Falwell said Trump could be “the best president since Abraham Lincoln” earlier this month, and last week conducted an interview with the website Breitbart in which he reportedly called for an “evangelical army” to defeat “fake Republicans” who resist the president’s agenda.

Martin decried Falwell’s robust support for Trump in his tweetstorm on Tuesday.

“Like the president for whom he serves as a full-time apologist, Falwell does not easily tolerate robust dissent,” he tweeted.

Indeed, Falwell’s support for the president has not gone uncontested. His endorsement of Trump eventually spurred a Liberty board of trustees member to resign in protest. Other conservatives such as Erick Erickson also called for Falwell to step down, and soon a student protest movement emerged: When school officials allegedly refused to run an op-ed critical of Trump in the campus newspaper, the Daily Beast ran the entire article in full anyway. Wahl and others formed a student group entitled Liberty United Against Trump, publishing an online petition decrying Falwell’s support for Trump that collected more than 3,000 signatures.