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Samford considers pro-LGBT student group

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP) — A recommendation by Samford University’s faculty to approve a pro-homosexual student group could have “serious implications … for the relationship” between the university and the Alabama Baptist State Convention, according to a joint statement by the convention’s president and the executive director of its State Board of Missions.

Samford President Andrew Westmoreland told faculty in an April 28 email he hopes the university and state convention leaders “find meaningful ways to affirm beliefs regarding the authority of Scripture held by so many of us, while enabling us to serve in ways that reflect God’s love for all people.”

The full faculty voted April 27 to recommend approval of “Samford Together,” a student organization that “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,” according to the Samford website.

Alabama Baptist State Convention (ABSC) President John Thweatt and Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions executive director Rick Lance said they were “saddened” by the faculty’s vote, “which provides recognition of an agenda that we believe to be contrary to Scripture.” Thweatt is pastor of First Baptist Church in Pell City, Ala.

“In the days to come,” Thweatt and Lance said in an April 27 statement, “Alabama Baptist leaders will be in dialogue with the leadership of Samford as to the serious implications this action has for the relationship between Samford University and the Alabama Baptist State Convention. We request your prayers as this situation is handled in a biblically correct way.”

Final approval of the student group must be granted by Samford’s board of trustees, which is scheduled to meet May 9.

According to The Alabama Baptist newsjournal, Westmoreland told the faculty April 27 he “would likely wait until the September meeting of the board for formal consideration of any proposal” in order to “take the time necessary this summer to work especially with our trustees on these questions.”

Samford is affiliated with the ABSC and will receive some $3.6 million in Cooperative Program funds in 2017, according to the state convention budget.

Samford’s board of trustees voted in 1994 to become self-perpetuating and has been legally self-perpetuating ever since. The university and the ABSC reached an agreement two years later that all trustees would be “jointly selected” and approved by the convention, Baptist Press reported at the time.

While Samford did not release the faculty vote total regarding Samford Together, multiple faculty members on Facebook estimated it as a significant majority in favor of the group.

The Faculty Senate voted earlier this year to recommend approval of Samford Together, according to The Alabama Baptist.

Westmoreland told faculty in an April 28 email he had read the statement by Thweatt and Lance, he had “a cordial conversation” with Lance and “agreed that we would remain in close dialogue.”

“Over the course of the summer, I will work with many Samford friends and stakeholders, including leaders from our Board of Trustees and the Alabama Baptist State Convention, to find meaningful ways to affirm beliefs regarding the authority of Scripture held by so many of us, while enabling us to serve in ways that reflect God’s love for all people,” Westmoreland said. “I am confident that Samford is a place where these goals may be achieved.”

In remarks to the faculty before their vote, Westmoreland said he holds “an understanding of biblical marriage as between a man and a woman,” The Alabama Baptist reported. He noted “perhaps the vast majority of Samford’s constituents” share that belief.

Westmoreland neither recommended approving Samford Together nor denying recognition to the group, according to his published remarks.

“As you hear me today, some of you may be disappointed by my unwillingness to completely embrace contemporary views of human sexuality and the theology that is used to undergird them,” Westmoreland told the faculty. “Likewise, some of you may be disappointed that I appear to be offering accommodation to those who hold such views.

“A clearer path for a different institution with a different president might be to take a less nuanced approach, lining up either fully in favor of more recent views of human sexuality or in favor of a campus that is closed to the exchange of viewpoints and ideas, but that approach does not reflect who I am, so I would be incapable of leading in either of those directions,” he said.

Samford’s 2016-17 “Student Handbook” notes “homosexual intercourse” as an example of “inappropriate sexual behavior” for students. Such conduct is punishable, according to the handbook, by a “minimum sanction” of “indefinite probation” and a “$500 fine.”

The university’s “Faculty Handbook” states, “Samford University espouses a philosophy of higher education anchored in Christian faith and values … The University supports an active advocacy of Christian belief and practice on the part of its faculty.”

Safe Samford — a separate, unofficial group that promotes “equality” for students who identify as homosexual or transgender — states on its website that students should “look for ‘Safe Zone’ stickers outside the offices of faculty and staff at Samford” and to “feel free to discuss LGBT issues with those persons.”