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Samford University

Last month, the president of Samford University gave remarks just before professors voted on a controversial new student group. It's one centered on discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity, from a sympathetic perspective rather than a critical one, which would seemingly prompt friction among the constituents of the private, Baptist institution.

“Many of us who hold what are known as ‘traditional’ views of marriage and human sexuality today are called ‘haters,’” said President Andrew Westmoreland, according to a transcript of his comments. “The term is intended to hurt, and it does. So volleys fly back and forth between camps while positions and hearts are hardened, and we run the risk, the very serious risk, that we will drive away from our churches and our universities and our families a generation that thinks about these questions in different ways than we have known. I choose not to walk that path, because brokenness already abounds and I am loathe to add to it. I believe that we are people who are capable of discussing differences without rancor, perhaps modeling for our students and others a way to move along this most tortured route.”

Westmoreland had added earlier in his statement that he believed in the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman.

The full faculty of Samford ultimately green-lighted the group, Samford Together, which still must receive approvals by administrators and the Board of Trustees before being granted official university affiliation.

But the vote -- a progressive step for such an institution such as Samford -- also drew the attention of Alabama Baptist leaders, who publicly insinuated that this would jeopardize the relationship between the Alabama Baptist State Convention and the university.

This leaves the institution’s leadership with the choice of approving the group and following the will of the students and faculty, or risking its rapport with the convention.

The state convention does wield some influence over Samford. Though the trustees operate independently, an agreement approved in the 1990s requires the convention to affirm the members elected to the board. It also contributes funding to Samford. News media has reported at least $3.6 million of the convention's Cooperative Program funding -- the entity that donates to affiliated groups and the Southern Baptist Convention -- will go to Samford. The university's expenses added up to roughly $163 million in 2016, per the annual report from that year.

In a joint statement, John Thweatt, the state convention’s president, and Rick Lance, executive director of the state Board of Missions, did not specify the consequences of the university accepting Samford Together as a student group.

A spokesman for the convention refused to answer additional questions or set up interviews.

The men wrote in the April statement they were “saddened” by the faculty decision.

“We strongly believe that the Old Testament and New Testament each speak unequivocally against homosexuality. When addressing same-gender sexual relationships, the Bible without exception never affirms such behavior as an approved lifestyle,” they wrote.

Thweatt, in an open letter this month, directly called on Westmoreland and the trustees to not sanction a group that would “question or oppose” Biblical teachings.

Forming such a groups on religious campuses requires significant commitment by students, said Haven Herrin, executive director of Soulforce, an organization that promotes the interests of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students at religious colleges and universities. Often, the fight for approval serves as a rallying point for these students, but they frequently don’t find success, Herrin said.

State Baptist conventions hold a great deal of sway over religious colleges, including whether the upper echelons of administration can keep their jobs, Herrin said. They often influence who is elected to a trustee board and picked as college president. Deep-pocked donors and wealthy alumni can also influence institutions.

“The stakes are pretty high,” she said.

Sometimes, trustee boards and other leaders tacitly allow the groups to exist without granting them the privileges that come with being acknowledged by the university, she said. But this can limit what students can accomplish or how they can organize on a campus.

A victory on Samford’s campus could embolden students on other campuses seeking to form similar groups, Herrin said.

Per a description on a Samford website, the group would study sexual orientation and gender identity and “encourage students’ academic development, social consciousness, spiritual formation and relational charity.”

The website does not list any contact information for student members of the group.

It was already approved by a student committee and a faculty committee prior to the full faculty vote last month, said a university spokesman, Philip Poole. Poole could not speak to why the group was seeking official university recognition, as the groups do not necessarily receive funding.

Asked if the university was concerned by statements made by the convention’s leaders, Poole declined to answer. The convention has not clarified what it meant in its statements, he said, adding that Westmoreland was traveling and unavailable for an interview.

“Since Samford is a strong, vibrant university, it welcomes and encourages discussion across a wide array of topics and has no fear of difficult conversations,” Poole said via email. “That approach will include honest dialogue that affirms the authority of Scripture and offers compassion and the hope of Christ. As the university administration and trustees consider this matter throughout the summer, they will seek the best ways of achieving those goals. Decisions will be made consistent with the mission, vision and values of the university.”

Samford does not expressly forbid same-sex relationships, but rather bans both same-sex and heterosexual intercourse (outside of heterosexual marriage), according to the student handbook. Violating this will result in a minimum indefinite probation and a $500 fine.

Samford eliminated anti-LGBTQ language from its policies about a decade ago, Herrin said. Many religious institutions have historically restricted same-sex relations. Baylor University, for instance, also a Baptist institution, at one time did not allow “homosexual acts” in its policies, but since has removed that reference.

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