It looked as though Samford University, a private Christian university just outside of Birmingham, Ala., was facing an ultimatum.
The creation of Samford Together, a student group dedicated to the discussion of LGBTQ issues and human sexuality, had created a rift between the administration and the Alabama Baptist State Convention, which asked for the group’s provisional status to be rescinded and its chances for permanent status scuttled as a condition for $3 million in annual funding.
Samford declined the convention’s $3 million, effective Jan. 1, and the institution’s president, Andrew Westmoreland, said he would work to advance Samford Together’s goals. But, at the same time, Westmoreland isn’t going to ask to Board of Trustees to give Samford Together permanent recognition.
Samford’s budget was about $166 million in 2016.
According to the university, Westmoreland decided not to ask the trustees to approve permanent recognition for the group before the terms came from the convention (the faculty voted to recommended its approval by the Board of Trustees in April). Announcing the university’s decision to forgo the Baptist funds, however, Westmoreland also said he would work to implement “each of the group’s worthy goals,” and the university hasn't made moves to take away the group's provisional status.
“I will involve these students and others across campus in taking essential steps to create new and ongoing opportunities for robustly engaging these and other important issues,” he said in a statement that didn’t mention Samford Together by name. “Our actions at Samford, irrespective of financial considerations, must demonstrate fidelity to God’s truth, abiding compassion and respect for all people, and solidarity with the timeless ideals of a strong university.”
The university declined to comment beyond its Friday news release announcing the decision to decline the funding. Declining the funding is a major decision: beyond the monetary contributions, the convention must affirm members of the university's board.
Though Samford Together’s aims are relatively limited -- providing a forum to discuss human sexuality and LGBTQ issues -- its creation drew condemnation from the ABSC. In an April statement addressing the faculty vote affirming Samford Together, John Thweatt, the state convention’s president, and Rick Lance, executive director of the state Board of Missions, expressed their disagreements with the faculty’s decision.
“We are saddened by this decision, which provides recognition for an agenda that we believe to be contrary to Scripture,” they said at the time. “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.”
Shane Windmeyer, executive director of Campus Pride, a national LGBTQ group for college students, said the lack of formal recognition might not be ideal, but Westmoreland’s decision to “stand up” to the convention was brave.
“The decision shows a great deal of courage to tell the [convention], ‘well, take your money, we’re going to do what we need to do on our campus,’” he said. “If Samford wants to be seen as inclusive, safe and accepting, then they should allow this group to exist. Are they the worst of the worst? Well, it sounds like the president is willing to stand up and say, ‘You know what, we’re not going to take the money.’”
Windmeyer compared Samford to the University of Notre Dame, where it took years of denials before an LGBTQ student group was recognized. Many religious institutions, of all faiths, he said, are at a crossroads as to how LGBTQ members in their communities should be treated. Samford, he added, hasn’t opted for a Title IX exemption to allow discrimination against LGBTQ people on the basis of religious grounds -- Campus Pride keeps a running list of such institutions on its website.
According to its description on Samford’s website, the group’s aims are rather limited, particularly compared to gay rights groups elsewhere. Still, many religious institutions oppose recognizing any gay rights groups. While Samford's Code of Values no longer explicitly bars “homosexual acts,” the code does ban intercourse outside heterosexual marriage.
“Samford Together will provide a forum for SU students who want to discuss topics relating to sexual orientation and gender identity. In an open-minded and accepting environment, students will find community and opportunities to study an array of ideas and opinions on these subjects,” the description reads. “Samford Together is rooted in the Samford motto and core values, and its members strive to follow Christ on a path of learning and communication, knowing that the world will be better as a result of the contributions of all Samford students.”
Members or contact information for the group are not listed on the website.
In a statement after Samford declined its funds, the convention acknowledged the university’s decision and said it would withhold the funding.
“The matter of recognition of the student organization is in the hands of the leadership of Samford University. They know our concerns about the organization as expressed in person and in print,” the statement said. “As always, we will pray for Samford, its leadership and its students as they work together in a university community in these challenging times.”