Located in Nashville, Belmont had ties to the Tennessee Baptist Convention (TBC) for more than 50 years until the university's board, in 2005, voted to move away from a TBC-elected board to a self-perpetuating board. Two years later, the two sides reached a settlement in which Belmont would pay the TBC $11 million over 40 years.
"For decades Tennessee Baptists poured themselves into making Belmont what it is," Randy Davis, executive director of the Tennessee Baptist Convention, told Baptist Press. "We did sever ties in 2007, but many of us never dreamed that the school would walk away so rapidly from their Christian heritage and roots. My heart is broken for all of the Tennessee Baptists that have loved and invested themselves in Belmont over the years. Many of our strongest leaders today are Belmont graduates, and the sentiment that I am hearing from them is one of outrage."
The controversy began in early December, when former women's soccer coach Lisa Howe left her position. It was unclear whether she resigned or was fired, but her players claimed she was let go when she told them her lesbian partner was pregnant. Howe seemed to imply that her sexuality was an issue, saying that her dedication to the program and school did not change "when I acknowledged that I am a lesbian and that my partner and I are expecting a baby."
Belmont initially stuck by its decision, with Belmont trustee chairman Marty Dickens saying "we do adhere to our values as Christ-centered, and we don't want to make apologies for that."
Christian leaders outside of Belmont circles applauded the school, but it soon became apparent the school might be backtracking. Just days after Howe left, Belmont President Bob Fisher held a press conference and said that in his 10 years, "sexual orientation has not been considered in making hiring, promotion, salary or dismissal decisions." He also acknowledged there are "many gay and lesbian students, as well as gay and lesbian faculty and staff."
Belmont also faced pressure from record executive Mike Curb, who had given $10 million toward construction of the basketball arena and said he would "do everything" he could to get the board of trustees to "change its policy on homosexuality and rehire Howe."
Fisher held a press conference Jan. 26 during which he said the new policy simply reflects the school's "long-standing practice."
"We are a Christian community that is welcoming, loving and inclusive of everyone," Fisher said, according to the Belmont Vision newspaper.
Howe released a statement, saying, according to The Tennessean, that Belmont needs to make sure "that acceptance of LGBT students and staff is not just a written policy." LGBT is an acronym for "lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender."
Belmont's board Jan. 26 also affirmed that school faculty and staff are expected to "uphold high Christian standards of morality, ethics and conduct," The Tennessean daily newspaper reported.
Davis, the Tennessee Baptist executive, said the school logically cannot claim to be biblically grounded while affirming unbiblical values.
"If you hold to a high Christian moral standard, and yet you embrace a lifestyle that the Scripture condemns, there is a conflict," Davis said. "In this postmodern era, there is a strong temptation for believers to become more tolerant of sin because they are afraid of being labeled. I think this issue is a flagpole kind of issue that many Christians are silent on. But compassion toward people and a biblical conviction can coexist.
"The truth about the love of God is paramount in Scripture. Dr. Fisher spoke of holding to a high standard of Christian morals. The biblical high standard is one man, one woman marriage. Anything less than that is a drastic lowering of the standard that is biblical and Christian."
Michael Foust is associate editor of Baptist Press.
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