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Tenn. Baptists to review 1951 contract stipulating Belmont ties

CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Messengers to the Tennessee Baptist Convention annual meeting cut funding for Belmont University but delayed acting on a proposed resolution defining the relationship between the two entities, further lengthening a process that began three and a half years ago and could open the door to legal action.

Belmont President Robert Fisher told messengers the matter would become a legal fight if it wasn’t settled that day.

“We are confident in the courts we will win,” Fisher said.

Messengers approved a budget that redistributed the $2.3 million originally designated for Belmont.

The new budget included an increase for the Southern Baptist Convention of $825,940. Union University and Carson-Newman College each got an additional $500,000 in the new budget, while Harrison Chilhowee Academy received an additional $47,000. Other funds went to the Tennessee Baptist Children’s Homes, the Tennessee Baptist Adult Homes and the Tennessee Baptist Foundation.

A 54-year-old contract between the TBC and Belmont was the sticking point for messengers reticent to act on a “resolution of relationship” as presented by the TBC executive board to the annual meeting at First Baptist Church in Clarksville.

That resolution would have changed the relationship between the two entities from one of affiliation to one of fraternity.

The 1951 contract apparently contains language indicating that if Belmont passed from Baptist control, its property would revert to the possession of the TBC executive board.

Fisher indicated that the contract had been superseded many times over the years by actions from both entities, and that it would have “no impact whatsoever” on the status of the relationship. But messengers chose to ask the TBC executive board and its attorneys to look at the contract to determine its validity. Belmont has possession of the contract, and as of Nov. 15 representatives of the TBC hadn’t seen it.

Members of the TBC executive board in their Nov. 14 meeting chose to disregard the contract in question and refer the resolution to the convention as a whole.

Executive board member William Seale said that while he didn’t agree with Belmont’s intentions to distance itself from the TBC, he was willing to approve the resolution of relationship. Doing so would keep the matter out of the courts, with Seale saying that a court battle would only hurt both the TBC and Belmont and would damage the name of Christ.

The resolution, crafted by the TBC’s education committee, would have established a “fraternal relationship” between Belmont and the TBC. It acknowledged Belmont’s intent to elect non-Baptists to its board of trustees and said that TBC funding of Belmont would end as of Nov. 1, 2005.

The proposed resolution of relationship was a result of TBC board action in September, when the board rejected a proposed “covenant of affiliation” between Belmont and the TBC. Belmont has been a TBC-affiliated entity since 1951, but university trustees in recent years have expressed the intention to allow non-Baptists to comprise up to 40 percent of their board of trustees.

Belmont made such a proposal in the covenant of affiliation document that the TBC board rejected.

The latest resolution was an attempt to maintain a cordial relationship between Belmont and the convention, but TBC Executive Director James Porch said he recently had become aware of the possible “reverter clause” concerning Belmont’s property. Porch reported to the TBC executive board that he and his staff had spent three days searching for the contract to no avail. Fisher then acknowledged to the board that Belmont possessed the document.

“We discovered this document Friday morning [Nov. 11],” Fisher said during the TBC annual meeting. “We thought the TBC had this document in hand.”

Fisher said he could have remained quiet about Belmont’s possession of the document, but integrity required him to reveal the truth. He cautioned messengers that a legal battle wouldn’t benefit any of the parties involved.

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