At first, it looked like Belmont University and the Tennessee Baptist Convention might agree amicably to a change in their relationship.
Belmont has wanted its board to gain control over its membership, ending the system under which the university nominated trustees, but the convention approved them and required all of them to be Baptists. In return for gaining control, Belmont would give up the more than $2 million it has received annually from the convention.
But the plan, first discussed last year,  blew up this week -- in part because of a dispute over a long-lost document from 1951. The Tennessee Baptist Convention voted, 923-791, to reject the change in relationship. Rather, the Baptists said that they want to fire the entire Belmont board and regain money they have given the university -- through a court battle if necessary.
The fight could be significant beyond Belmont -- as the university thought it was following a trend in recent years in which several Baptist institutions had managed with a minimum of controversy to redefine their relationships to state conventions. But last year, the Georgia Baptist Convention won a long legal battle to retain control of Shorter College  -- and some observers believe that emboldened Baptist groups elsewhere.
"I think the Shorter experience gave this issue a new twist. Up until that point, the colleges had been winning their independence, but this may be a new pattern," said Rev. David W. Key, director of Baptist studies at Emory University's theology school.
Key said he worries about what's happening at Belmont and in Baptist higher education generally as a result of the Shorter precedent. "It's the control factor. I think ultimately fundamentalism and higher education are not compatible and that's what's going on here," he said. While Key said he didn't know who would win the fight over Belmont, "it's sad that lawyers are now going to get a lot of money based on these entities fighting."
Belmont and other universities that have sought independence from state conventions have stressed that their Baptist roots would remain important parts of their institutions. But generally they have said that they want to be open to students of other faiths, and that promoting certain areas of academic strength is difficult if an institution is identified only as educating members of a particular religious group. Belmont, for example, has built up a program in the music business -- ideal for the university's Nashville location -- besides the institution's more traditional offerings.
The disputes typically come to a head over board appointments. Belmont proposed independence after the convention rejected an idea that 40 percent of board seats be open to Christians who aren't Baptists. Among the institutions that have successfully made similar shifts are Averett University  (formerly affiliated with the Virginia Baptist Mission Board) and Georgetown College (formerly controlled by the Kentucky Baptist Convention). Issues of religion and trustee membership are not unique to Baptists: Davidson College faced a backlash from some alumni  last year when the institution, founded by Presbyterians, decided to allow non-Christians to serve on its board.
In Tennessee, Baptist leaders did not respond to messages seeking their views.
But the Associated Baptist Press reported that opposition to the proposed separation grew amid reports of a 1951 agreement between Belmont and the convention. Some Baptists interpret that document -- discovered in a safe at the university -- as pledging that the university would stay under Baptist control and would return all funds it had received from the convention if it ever left that control. That would amount to about $50 million, far more than the $5 million that Belmont has offered to give as part of a peaceful parting of ways.
Belmont officials call the 1951 document a "historic artifact" that was made irrelevant when the university's charter was changed in 1974, giving the Belmont board the right to control its future. Belmont's board is not stepping aside or retreating from its plans.
A statement released by Marty Dickens, chair of the Belmont board, said that it was "disappointed" by the convention's vote, and pledged to meet with Baptist leaders to try to resolve points of disagreement. But the statement did not back down at all. "Neither state law nor Belmont's governing documents support the convention's vote to remove the trustees. 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."