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The Tennessee Baptist Convention on Tuesday authorized a special committee to use any means necessary, including a lawsuit, to resolve a leadership dispute with Belmont University.

Earlier in a specially called convention meeting at Two Rivers Baptist Church in Nashville, messengers voted 923-791 to reject a $5 million settlement offered by Belmont trustees, which would have formally ended the 55-year-old relationship between the state’s Baptists and the university in Nashville.

The dispute centers on a Nov. 10 vote by Belmont trustees to amend the school’s charter allowing them to elect their own successors. Convention leaders say trustees were not authorized to take the action without convention approval, and that it violated a recently unearthed 1951 contract saying if Belmont should ever leave the convention’s control, Tennessee Baptists are entitled to recover all gifts to the school, an amount amassed to nearly $58 million over the last 55 years.

By a vote of 1,383-103, messengers voted to expand a Belmont study committee of the TBC executive board to 14 members and authorized the group to “carry out all rights, powers, actions and remedies” with respect to Belmont. Those include but are not limited to “private negotiations/settlement, mediation, arbitration and/or litigation” to protect the convention’s rights under the 1951 agreement or Tennessee non-profit law.

Messengers authorized spending of up to $100,000 from surplus Cooperative Program funds in 2005-2006 for immediate costs related to protecting the convention’s interests.

James Porch, executive director of the 3,000-church Tennessee Baptist Convention, told reporters that convention leaders were concerned about using Cooperative Program money for possible litigation. “They are intended for missions,” he said of voluntary gifts given by Baptists and forwarded to state and national ministries by local churches, “but we have been laden with a responsibility here.”

The TBC executive board on Monday approved two motions to pass on to the convention for consideration. The first, rejected by messengers, called for the convention to accept a “settlement offer” from Belmont of $2 million in cash and $1 million per year over the next three years.

In exchange, Tennessee Baptists would have terminated the relationship with the university and released all claims under a 1951 document that includes a reverter clause. Convention officers argue the contract is still valid, while Belmont calls it a “historical artifact” that–if ever binding–is superseded by subsequent agreements.

“What would be the best news of the day would be Baptists are fighting Baptists,” Bill Seal, member of First Baptist Church in Morristown, Tenn., and a member of a Belmont study committee, said in an allusion to media covering the special convention. “And one way we can do that is say, ‘Let’s forget the recommendation, Let’s go sue them.'”

Seal, an attorney, urged against that option, saying, “The process of litigation will grind many activities of the convention to a halt.”

Bill Sherman, pastor of First Baptist Church of Fairview, Tenn., called the first proposal a “win-win situation,” similar to a peacefully brokered settlement between Georgetown College and the Kentucky Baptist Convention last year.

Another messenger, Sam Nichols of First Baptist Church of Collierville, said Tennessee Baptists should look south instead of north. “Shorter College tried to do the same thing” as Belmont, Nichols said. “The Georgia Baptist Convention took them to court and brought them back. I know what Georgia Baptists can do, Tennessee Baptists can do better.”

Belmont filed an amended charter after talks broke down over a proposal by the school to redefine its relationship to allow Christians who are not Baptists to serve on its board of trustees. Belmont leaders said the school needs leadership that looks more like the current student body, which is only 26 percent Baptist.

Tennessee Baptists said they are not interested in establishing new fraternal relationships with institutions that are not explicitly Baptist and they do not directly control. Some said the convention should not be afraid to sue in an effort to restore the convention’s right to elect trustees or have its gifts to the university refunded.

“The Bible says thou shalt not sue,” said Tim McGehee, a member of the TBC executive board who voted in opposition to the recommendation. “But the Bible also says thou shalt not steal and thou shalt not lie.” He accused Belmont trustees of doing both in changing the school’s charter last November without prior consent from the Tennessee Baptist Convention.

Convention attorney Randy Davis estimated that the convention stood a 50-50 chance of regaining the right to elect trustees under Tennessee law. He said odds of winning remuneration under the 1951 agreement were better, about 75-25.

Belmont’s attorneys, however, say there is no history of the document ever being appealed to in convention minutes. They call it a “historical artifact” that has been superseded by several agreements.

Clay Austin, president of the TBC executive board and chair of the study committee, said he intends to expand the Belmont study committee by at least six people, adding more people from Middle Tennessee who live closer to Belmont. A first step would be to call the group together, he said, and then set up avenues for communication with the university.

“We will start with the simplest” plan of action available to the convention, Austin told reporters. “Let’s sit down and talk, and then let’s go from there.”

Belmont officials were not available to reporters covering the meeting, but issued a statement on the University Web site.

“We are disappointed that the messengers did not approve the recommendation brought to them by the executive board of the Tennessee Baptist Convention,” said trustee chairman Marty Dickens. “We look forward to meeting with representatives of the TBC to continue our dialogue and reach a mutually agreeable solution that honors our mutual Christian missions.”

In other action, convention messengers voted to vacate Belmont’s current trustees, a procedural vote that would not take effect legally unless the convention wins a lawsuit.

Dickens said current trustees would ignore the vote. “Neither state law nor Belmont’s governing documents support the convention’s vote to remove the trustees,” he said. “We feel that the involvement of our supporters from other Christian denominations will strengthen our mission and take us to the next chapter in our service. We will continue to be a student-focused, Christian community of learning and service with a rich Baptist heritage that we intend to foster and nurture. That is our promise and our covenant.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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