The Tennessee Baptist Convention’s lawsuit against Belmont University is headed for court. EthicsDaily.com learned Wednesday that attempts to mediate a dispute over the makeup of the university’s board of trustees have failed and a trial is being scheduled for the week of May 19.
University President Robert Fisher reportedly read a statement at Belmont’s convocation Wednesday morning, but EthicsDaily.com was unable to obtain a text of his comments before the deadline for this story.
The Tennessee Baptist Convention sued the university, which it had supported since 1951, last October. Tennessee Baptists ceased funding for Belmont in 2005, upon learning the university wanted to change its governing documents to allow non-Baptist Christians to serve alongside a Baptist majority on the trustee board.
The university said the change was needed to elect trustee leadership that looks more like a student body that is a majority non-Baptist, and to open new avenues for fund raising. Belmont’s enrollment is growing rapidly. A record 4,765 students are enrolled this fall, 6.3 percent more than last year and an increase of more than 60 percent since 2000.
Tennessee Baptist Convention leaders have said they are not interested in funding institutions they cannot control. Their lawsuit does not dispute that Belmont University trustees had the legal right to amend the school’s charter to authorize them to elect their own successors, but claims that Belmont agreed in 1951 to return monies contributed to the university by Tennessee Baptists should the institution ever pass from control by the state convention.
Belmont contends the 1951 agreement is a historical document that was apparently never enforced, and if it was ever legally binding has been superseded by other covenants redefining the relationship between the university and state convention over a period of 54 years.
The state convention seeks $58 million in damages–the total amount of gifts made to Belmont over the years. Before deciding to sue, the TBC turned down an offer by Belmont to settle the impasse for $5 million at a called state convention meeting in May 2006.
Belmont claims the charter change was part of a compromise covenant relationship worked out between trustees and convention leaders that broke down unexpectedly at the state convention’s annual meeting in November 2005, and that the university never intended to sever ties with the state convention.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.