Defending a Lesbian Coach

At Belmont University, students and faculty question how fair and how Christian it is to force out a woman for being honest that her partner is pregnant.

December 9, 2010

The departure of Belmont University women’s soccer coach Lisa Howe — who was reportedly pushed out after revealing that she is a lesbian and her partner is having a baby — has been anything but quiet, even though Howe has not been speaking out.

In a single week, on a campus not known for its protests, students have organized multiple rallies, the Faculty Senate has passed a resolution supporting gay university employees, and a major donor has condemned the way Howe was treated. Many critics charge that Belmont, a Christian institution, has acted in ways that have left gay students and employees fearful for their ability to remain at the university.

Responding to the growing criticism, Robert Fisher, the president, called a press briefing late Wednesday in which he said that the university has "done a poor job of communicating" in recent days, and that he was sorry for "the pain, the hurt and the fear this has created among some of our students and the rest of our community."

Fisher cited standard practice of not discussing personnel matters in noting that he would not say anything about Howe (a point he reinforced by not even naming her). He said that Belmont is "a safe and welcoming place for all," and that there are "many gay and lesbian students" enrolled as well as gay faculty and staff members. In 10 years as president, he said, repeating himself for emphasis, sexual orientation has never been considered with regard to hiring, promotion, salary or dismissal decisions involving employees or "in any manner" with regard to students. Fisher did not take any questions at the event — and Belmont declined a series of requests Wednesday to make an official available for an interview about the disputes there.

The statement that Belmont does not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation appears to contradict a statement made several days ago by Marty Dickens, chair of the board of the university, who told The Tennessean that Howe had to leave because she violated clearly stated expectations requiring conduct consistent with the university's values. "We expect people to commit themselves to high moral and ethical standards within a Christian context," he told the newspaper. "We do adhere to our values as Christ-centered, and we don't want to make apologies for that."

Belmont's code of conduct for everyone on the campus states that persons who commit sexual misconduct are subject to disciplinary proceedings — and the code's first example of sexual misconduct is "sexual behavior outside of marriage." (Tennessee law does not allow same-sex marriage.) Belmont's anti-discrimination policy bars bias based on race, color, gender, national origin, age or disability but does not mention sexual orientation.

Accusations of hypocrisy were rampant on the campus this week — with many arguing that their view of Christianity is offended by Howe's ouster, not her presence. One sign at a protest Wednesday said: "Jesus Had Two Dads And He Turned Out OK.”

For Belmont, Howe's departure was the second incident this fall forcing discussion of how gay people there should be treated. Last month, the university defended a decision not to recognize a group of gay students and allies (and to instead sponsor discussions on the topic of sexuality). At that time, the university again stated that it does not discriminate, issuing a statement that said: "Mistreatment or harassment of anyone because of a personal characteristic or belief is contrary to the mission and values of the university and will not be tolerated.”

Members of the group Bridge Builders were angry at being rejected for recognition — and the treatment of Howe now has many more people questioning Belmont's policies.

“No matter what your beliefs are, no matter what your beliefs aren’t, people should be treated fairly and justly, and in this situation that wasn’t demonstrated,” Belmont senior Erica Carter said in an interview. A four-year veteran of the women’s soccer team, Carter worked closely with Howe and said she is an ideal coach for Belmont because of her caring nature and emphasis on academic performance. “[Administrators] are not acting the way that Christ says that we should act…. All Christians should try to treat each other with respect and decency because that’s what the Bible teaches us.”

Bridge Builders organized some of the campus protests this week, which have thus far included a sit-in at the Belmont president’s office and two outdoor protests – the second of which drew more than double the previous crowd, with 100 people marching across campus Wednesday. Some of those students have Facebook profile pictures declaring their support for Bridge Builders; others have pictures with “Christians don’t discriminate” stamped over the Belmont Bruins logo.

Max Ellis, a Belmont freshman and social chair of Bridge Builders, said Wednesday that the group is protesting the administration, not the university. "I'm convinced that this is no more than a few powerful people with this ideal in their head of what Belmont is and they're trying to force that sort of morality on us. They're trying to tell us what our morals are and what our ethics should be," he said. "The administration is making decisions that are not representative of the student population. And it's not representative of the vast majority of what we believe to be Christian morals. We're protesting against them on the basis of Christian morality."

In 2007, Belmont had a tense separation from the Tennessee Baptist Convention to gain more autonomy — and its students clearly take seriously the idea that it remains a Christian university.

“Prior to this I thought that all Christianity was one and the same, and it’s not really seeming like that right now,” Carter said. “It has made me just question what type of Christianity Belmont practices.”

At a Monday meeting, the Faculty Senate unanimously approved a resolution recommending that “the sexual identity of individuals should not impact that person’s standing on campus,” and urging the university to lead an open dialogue around Belmont and homosexuality. The resolution also noted the necessity for Belmont to act “in a moral and legal manner.” (Tennessee has no state law barring discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.)

The senate also tabled a second resolution asking the university to define its policy on gay employees.

Nathan Griffith, associate professor of political science at Belmont, voted on the first resolution and sponsored the second one. He said the Senate ultimately decided — "rightly so" — to postpone calling for policy change in order to allow time for a more thoughtful discussion with administrators. He also said the meeting drew a larger crowd than usual, with more non-Senate faculty attending.

Interim Provost Pat Raines issued a subsequent statement on Tuesday that essentially acknowledged the Faculty Senate’s right to make such recommendations. “As an ecumenical Christian university, we value and affirm the worth of every member of our community,” the statement said. “Members of the Belmont community — our students, employees, administration and board — represent a wide array of diverse perspectives on this issue, and we welcome hearing their voices in this ongoing dialogue.”

Mike Curb, a Belmont trustee who donated $10 million for the university to help build the Curb Event Center, sent a congratulatory letter to the Faculty Senate president after the resolution passed. In it, he said he hopes Belmont will offer to re-hire Lisa Howe. “Even though it’s been reported that the board has backed this, I can tell you that no one from Belmont or the board has contacted me regarding this issue,” he wrote. “I will do everything I can to try to get the Board of Trustees to reconsider their position based on the fact that this is a basic civil rights issue.”

The board backing Curb refers to alludes to the controversial comments of Dickens, the board chair.

Howe’s only public statement was in response to Dickens; she said, “This is an educational experience for all of us — including Belmont University. I respectfully ask members of the media to turn their attention away from me and toward the broader issues at stake that affect so many people in the Belmont community — such as what it means to be a diverse Christian community and how we can support and respect each other despite our differences.”

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