Gov. Ralph Northam asked Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. on Wednesday to reconsider his decision to welcome students back to the Lynchburg campus this week after their spring break. Later, the university accused Northam of making “false accusations.”

Speaking at a news conference in Richmond, Northam criticized Liberty, which is among the nation’s largest and most prominent evangelical colleges, as sending “mixed messages” about COVID-19.

“We have heard too many mixed messages around the country about COVID-19, and this is yet another example. Our message has been clear and it will continue to be clear. Stay home unless you have to leave for essential reasons,” Northam said Wednesday.

Asked whether he could close the school, Northam said he does not have the authority to do so. Northam issued an executive order banning gatherings of 10 people or more under the penalty of a misdemeanor, which he has said local governments can enforce.

“We appreciate our colleges and universities making accommodation for students with special cases. But that is very different from inviting students to leave their homes and come back to campus.”

As many colleges nationwide began announcing campus closures this month, Liberty initially planned to continue on-campus instruction. But last week, Liberty said it would transition most classes online effective Monday.

However, residential students were told they were “welcome” to return to campus, according to an email sent to students. The move was at odds with many other institutions of higher education, including the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, which has said only students who have “no other options” can remain on campus, and the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, which closed its residence halls.

“I would suggest that President Falwell look to the actions of the leaders of Virginia’s flagship universities for how to set a strong example in this health crisis and to please reconsider his message that invites and encourages students to return to campus,” said Northam, who is a doctor.

In a statement later Wednesday, the university said it was in compliance with all of the governor’s directives and applicable federal guidance. It noted that health inspectors performing an unannounced inspection earlier in the week found no violations.

“Our students are part of the Lynchburg community!” Liberty said in a statement. “They work jobs, have apartments, make economic contributions and pay taxes. That they should be banned or discouraged from choosing to utilize the shelter and food sources that they paid for in a time of crisis is unthinkable.”

Liberty officials have said about 1,500 of the approximately 15,000 residential students are back on campus.

“The only Liberty students who are here are adult students who have concluded that this is the only place they have or it is the safest and best place to be, among what may be limited options for them. So yes, we welcomed them to stay and did not ban or discourage anyone from accessing their local food and shelter,” the statement said.

“That anyone in the City of Lynchburg would welcome other college students from across the state — and indeed the world — to return ‘home’ to Lynchburg but expect the drawbridge should be pulled up to deny entry to Liberty students illustrates the height of hypocrisy and scapegoating that is going on today,” Liberty’s statement said.

Local officials have said they were fielding complaints from residents and Liberty parents about the school’s policy. Lynchburg Mayor Treney Tweedy said in a statement Tuesday that she thought the decision letting students return was “reckless.”

On Wednesday, Northam quoted from 1 Corinthians, saying: “It is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.”

“Proving faithful means providing clear and consistent guidance,” he went on to say. “And it means respecting the duty that Liberty University has to its students, its staff, the Lynchburg community in which it is located, and our commonwealth.”

Liberty’s statement said: “We invite Governor Northam to come and see our compliance for himself, rather than making false accusations in press conferences from Richmond. As the Ninth Commandment says, ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.’ ”

Times-Dispatch staff writer Mel Leonor contributed to this report.

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