Former Baptist school center of gay-rights dispute

December 9, 2010

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (ABP) -- A private, historically Baptist Christian
college has sparked a national media firestorm over its successful
women's soccer coach leaving her job shortly after telling members of
her team that she is gay.

Officials at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., issued a press release Dec. 2 saying
Coach Lisa Howe was leaving after six years on the job. Members of the
team said she was told to resign or be fired after revealing that she
and her same-sex partner are expecting a baby in May.

The initial release quoted the athletics director saying Howe "informed
the university of her intent to conclude her employment with Belmont"
and that it was her decision. Another release
the following day said Howe did not "resign" and was not "dismissed."
Acknowledging "inaccuracies" in the first release, officials said Howe's
leaving was by "mutual agreement."

The former coach isn't discussing the terms of her departure, on advice
from a lawyer. She released a statement expressing appreciation for the
opportunity to lead the women's soccer team, thanking her student
athletes and concluding, "I am at a point in my life where I am
satisfied to move on, and I wish the Belmont women's soccer team
continued success."

Students, alumni and other supporters braved
cold temperatures Sunday, Dec. 5, to hold signs on the edge of campus
protesting what they called a firing over sexual orientation. Another
demonstration followed Dec. 8 with a cross-campus march by about 100 students.

The protests made headlines in the campus and Nashville newspapers and lead stories in Nashville TV news broadcasts before spilling over into national outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, Sports Illustrated, CBS News and the Huffington Post.

Belmont's faculty senate passed
a unanimous resolution encouraging conversation about the university's
hiring policy and affirming belief "that sexual identity of individuals
should not impact that person's standing on campus." The senate voted to
postpone until January another resolution
that called for clarification of Belmont's hiring policies regarding
sexual orientation after a number of faculty senators voiced concern
about what actions a hasty resolution might force.

Belmont President Robert Fisher said
Dec. 8 the university did a poor job in communicating and that he took
full responsibility for that. He said it is against school policy to
discuss personnel matters, but stated clearly that "sexual orientation
is not considered in making hiring, promotion, salary or dismissal
decisions at Belmont."

Howe praised Fisher's statement Dec. 9, saying it would "set an example
for Christian schools and universities across the country."

“I look forward to seeing this policy implemented," she said in a statement.
"I intend for my next job to be in a place where I feel safe and
welcome. If Belmont is that place, then I will certainly consider
reapplying."

Students, faculty more gay-friendly than trustees?

The controversy sheds light on a possible disconnect between Belmont
students, faculty, administrators and trustees when it comes to sexual
identity.

The administration has twice refused to recognize
a student organization to "examine the intersection of Christian faith
and LGBT related issues through group discussion." The official response
was that such a group could be "potentially provocative or even
divisive." As a compromise the university initiated a series of
discussion groups called "Difficult Dialogues."

Members of Bridge Builders, which now functions as an unofficial group
and spearheaded the recent student demonstrations, said the
university-sponsored discussion attracted primarily people on their side
of the issue and that they believe official recognition would better
poise them to engage differing points of view.

The rift also revealed tensions for schools like Belmont tethered to a
sectarian heritage yet ambitious to lure top talent in athletics and
fields such as law and the entertainment industry. In 2007 Belmont
agreed to pay $11 million to settle a lawsuit terminating its 56-year
relationship with the Tennessee Baptist Convention, in part to diversify
its trustee board and donor database in a day when the majority of
students are no longer Baptist.

Major donor criticizes school

Trustee emeritus Mike Curb, a music business executive who has given millions of dollars to the university; issued a letter
criticizing the school's actions. He said current board members are out
of touch with the reality facing alumni of the university's
music-business school, which carries his name. Curb, whose major gifts include
$10 million for naming rights to Belmont's $52 million Curb Event
Center, said regardless of their own sexual orientation, Belmont music
students would have to work with gay colleagues after they graduate.

Like many colleges, Belmont's policies are ambiguous when it comes to hiring gays. Its policy
of non-discrimination cites both civil-rights law and "Christian
values." Among other things, those values "affirm the dignity of each
person as a creation of God." Sexual orientation is not mentioned in the
policy, but the university reserves the right to "discriminate on the
basis of religion in order to fulfill its purposes."

The school recently deleted "homosexual behavior" from a student policy on sexual misconduct while retaining "sexual relations outside marriage."

Women on the soccer team said
Howe had never spoken about her sexuality before, but when her partner
became pregnant, the coach wanted her team to hear the news from her
instead of through gossip or rumor. After waiting several weeks for
permission and with word starting to leak out, Howe took it upon herself
to share the news just before Thanksgiving. A day after classes resumed
Nov. 29, the coach was gone.

A team leader who asked administrators for clarification on the
departure said she was told that Belmont's policy is "don't ask, don't
tell," and that by sharing that she and her partner were having a child
Howe outed herself. Howe would have been fired after the baby's birth,
anyway, the player said she was told, because it is impossible to hide a
child.