- The Washington Times - Friday, December 1, 2006

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Belmont University has a national reputation as country music’s best finishing school, with a music-business program that has trained countless executives and country singers including Brad Paisley, Trisha Yearwood and Lee Ann Womack.

But Music Row’s favorite school is also affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, and that long-standing religious tie is now the focus of a court battle.

To attract a wider array of donors, Belmont, like several other Baptist schools, is trying to win greater independence from the denomination and more control over its board. The Tennessee Baptist Convention has responded with a lawsuit meant to retain Belmont’s Baptist identity.

“There’s a real push for fundraising now and they need non-Baptists,” said David Key, director of Baptist studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. “A lot of people are not going to give huge amounts of money unless they’re on a board of trustees.”

In some cases, Baptists have been willing to part ways with the schools — in Georgia for example, where Baptist leaders perceive Mercer University as too liberal. The Georgia Baptist Convention voted Nov. 14 to end its 170-year relationship with Mercer, which now has control over choosing its trustees. Convention members were upset last year by a National Coming Out Day program on campus sponsored by a homosexual student group and supported by faculty and staff.

But several state Baptist groups are fighting to keep the schools in the fold.

Shorter College, another Georgia school with Southern Baptist ties, voted in 2003 to sever its relationship with the state convention after a regional agency threatened its accreditation because of the power vested in the Baptist association.

The Georgia convention rallied against the move, leading the Georgia Supreme Court to block Shorter’s attempt to make the split, saying Baptists have sole power to appoint the college’s trustees.

In Belmont’s case, school administrators said they wanted to lower the representation of Southern Baptist trustees on the school board from 100 percent to 60 percent, with the other 40 percent to be drawn from other Christian denominations.

School officials argued that fewer than one-third of Belmont’s nearly 4,300 students identify themselves as Baptists and the school’s board should reflect that mix.

“For Belmont, the music business industry is so significant, and that has no Baptist dynamic to it. This opens up a whole world that can have really significant money,” Mr. Key said.

In October, the Tennessee Baptist Convention filed suit, seeking the return of $57 million it has given the school since Baptists began supporting it nearly 55 years ago.

Belmont officials and Baptists have declined to say much about the dispute because of the pending lawsuit. However, the state convention’s outgoing president, the Rev. Philip Jett, has said that the goal of the suit is not money, but maintaining the Baptist connection with Belmont.

The school received about $2.3 million per year for the past five years from Baptists. But in October 2005, convention leaders informed Belmont that if the university proceeded with plans to include non-Baptists on its board, the convention would stop its funding. The school refused to back down and hasn’t received any money from Baptists since last November.

Bob Agee, executive director of the International Association of Baptist Colleges and Universities, said state Baptist conventions often fight to maintain links to schools because they believe it’s a vital part of the denomination’s mission.

“The idea is as a Christian institution, you’re turning out men and women to the marketplace in all the professions and contributing to a greater good,” he said.

“I’m disappointed it’s ended up in a lawsuit. Nobody wins in this kind of situation,” Mr. Agee said. “The TBC has a long history of faithful support to its colleges and universities. I think it’s tragic any time Christian institutions end up in a lawsuit against each other.”

Jacklyn Johnston, editor in chief of Belmont’s school newspaper, said most students have sided with the school on the issue.

“Belmont is a music school and liberal arts school, even though it’s also private,” she said. “We’re a diverse campus, and I think having the board be representative of that … we are very much in favor of.”

Tensions between Baptist schools and their state conventions date back decades.

The University of Richmond and Wake Forest University were among the first colleges to end their relationship with their state Baptist groups in the 1980s. Stetson University in Florida and Furman University in South Carolina have also broken with their state conventions.

Baylor University in Texas and Samford University in Alabama moved to self-governance in the 1990s, but retained connections with the denomination and still receive funding. Still, they have no direct institutional connections.

The Rev. Bill Leonard, dean of Wake Forest University’s School of Divinity and a frequent critic of Southern Baptist leaders, said many Baptist schools are getting less money from the denomination, and they have to decide whether the funding is worth the constraints.

“That means that faculty has to decide if they can actually stay in a place increasingly boundaried by theological and political litmus tests,” Mr. Leonard said. “At the same time, if a school receives several hundred thousand or even millions a year, that money can be difficult to make up on a large scale.

“You can count on this continuing.”

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