When Belmont University faced an uproar over the ouster of a lesbian coach in December, administrators insisted that they did not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. But critics noted that though the university's anti-bias policy prohibited several types of discrimination, sexual orientation was not on the list.
On Wednesday, the university announced that its board has changed the policy and that henceforth, discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation would be officially barred. Further, the university added a new preamble to its anti-bias policy stating that Belmont is a Christian university and that the university strives "to uphold Christian standards of morality, ethics and conduct."
Many colleges affiliated with Christian denominations that question sexual relationships outside of heterosexual marriage do not include sexual orientation in their anti-bias policies; the same is true for many nondenominational Christian colleges with ties to such denominations. (Belmont was for many years affiliated with the Tennessee Baptist Convention and today calls itself "a student-centered Christian community with a rich Baptist heritage.")
Belmont has faced intense scrutiny and considerable criticism over its treatment of gay people since word surfaced late last year that Lisa Howe had reportedly been forced out as women's soccer coach -- after revealing that she is a lesbian and that her partner is having a baby. Howe was popular with her players, many of whom were outraged that they were losing a coach because she had been honest, and that their coach was out of a job as she was preparing to bring a child into the world. Numerous protests were held and faculty members joined students in criticizing the university.
Robert Fisher, the president of the university, said in December that the university did not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. But his statements were contradicted by Marty Dickens, chair of the board of the university, who told The Tennessean that the university had the right to enforce 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." (He subsequently stated that his quotes were not in regard to Howe's case.)
In his statement Wednesday, Fisher again reiterated that he believed that the addition to the anti-bias policy was a reflection of existing practice.
Howe released a statement in which she said: "I am thrilled for the Belmont University community. This is a great victory for the values of inclusion, human dignity, and respect. I am incredibly proud of the Belmont faculty and students for pushing for this policy. I am also grateful to the Belmont board for recognizing that being gay and being Christian are not mutually exclusive. This is a landmark day."
But Howe went on to state that now "begins the task for Belmont University leaders to make sure that acceptance of LGBT students and staff is not just a written policy but is also reflected in practice, attitude, and behavior. A written policy is the beginning of forming a truly inclusive atmosphere on campus. It is especially important that LGBT students and staff feel safe in being open and honest about their identities and have confidence that they will be treated fairly and with respect. Anything short of this would mean the new policy is merely ink on a page." (NOTE: This article has been updated from the original version with Howe's statement.)
It remains unclear how the new policy will be carried out. Belmont's code of conduct for everyone on the campus states that individuals 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.) According to the Associated Press, when reporters on Wednesday asked Fisher if the new anti-bias policy means that openly gay people can work at Belmont, despite the code of conduct, he said, "I would put that in the category of a hypothetical."