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Tennessee Baptists file suit against Belmont University

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–The Tennessee Baptist Convention has filed a lawsuit against Belmont University, citing breach of contract and seeking damages in the amount of all past contributions the convention has made to the school since 1951, an amount that exceeds $58 million without consideration of inflation.

The TBC’s Executive Board filed the complaint Sept. 29 with the Davidson County Chancery Court in Nashville, pointing to an official repayment agreement reached by the convention and the school in 1951 which said that if Belmont ever passed from Baptist control, the school would repay the TBC the value of any assets transferred to it.

Clay Austin, president of the TBC Executive Board, said the lawsuit “allows the parties to pursue the next option of mediation in hopes of reaching an amicable resolution of the issues.”

“If mediation is unable to result in a mutually acceptable resolution of the issues, then and only then would the litigation process be continued,” Austin said.

James Porch, executive director of the TBC, expressed regret over the situation and asked for prayer.

“Together in 1951, Tennessee Baptists and Belmont began writing a story of higher education,” Porch said Oct. 2, according to the Baptist & Reflector newsjournal. “Now Belmont has chosen to write Tennessee Baptists out of their story and continue alone.

The TBC purchased Ward-Belmont College, a school for women, in early 1951 and opened it as the coeducational Belmont College in the fall of the same year.

“Baptists of Tennessee have contributed greatly to assist Belmont in becoming a university that today provides quality higher education,” Porch added. “I trust that our Baptist people, regardless of the situation, will continue to intercede in prayer for Belmont University.”

Marty Dickens, chairman on Belmont’s board of trustees, said in a statement the trustees were “astonished” to learn of the lawsuit, which he called “meritless.”

“We are, of course, disappointed to learn of this new development and continue to hope for a thoughtful and faithful resolution,” Dickens said, according to The Tennessean newspaper.

The move comes after Belmont’s trustees last November filed a request with the state of Tennessee to change the school’s charter without approval from the convention. The restated charter made the trustees a self-perpetuating board with 40 percent of its members being non-Baptist, as opposed to the previous agreement giving the TBC the right to elect all trustees.

During a special session at Two Rivers Baptist Church in Nashville May 9, TBC messengers voted 1,383-103 to adopt an Executive Board recommendation authorizing a special study committee to “carry out all rights, powers, actions and remedies of the convention” with respect to Belmont. Options available to the committee, led by Austin, included “private negotiations/settlement, mediation, arbitration and/or litigation.”

“The Belmont Study Committee, a cross-section of Baptist pastors and laymen, persons of acknowledged spiritual maturity and respecters of the legal process, have pursued its assigned task with responsible action accountable to Tennessee Baptists,” Austin told the Baptist & Reflector, adding that the committee “has focused on seeking truth and honoring applicable biblical and legal principles.”

Austin, pastor of First Baptist Church in Blountville, Tenn., said that after extensive deliberations with Belmont representatives, the committee realized legal action was necessary.

“Belmont has advised the committee that it has no desire to return to any relationship with the convention which would involve the convention participating in the election of the members of its governing board of trustees. With this revelation, the committee has concluded that the primary goal of the convention is not attainable,” Austin said, referring to the TBC’s desire to re-establish the affiliated relationship with Belmont whereby the convention would elect the members of Belmont’s board of trustees.

With private negotiations having failed to reached the convention’s objective, Austin said the 14-member study committee on Sept. 25 authorized the filing of a legal complaint seeking enforcement of the “rights and remedies” of the convention under the 1951 agreement.

“Belmont has breached the express terms of the Repayment Agreement by denying the Tennessee Baptist Convention the right to elect the members of Belmont’s Board of Trustees and, thereafter, refusing to repay, restore or refund to the Executive Board the money and property that had been transferred to Belmont by the Executive Board since 1951,” the lawsuit says.

The suit further states that Belmont will be “unjustly enriched if it is permitted to retain the monies, properties and items of value it has received from the Executive Board.”

“But for the financial support of the Executive Board, Belmont would not have been able to transform itself from a small junior college, teetering on the verge of bankruptcy, into a respected, financially successful national university,” the lawsuit says.

The Executive Board is asking that damages be awarded in an amount not less than the value, in today’s dollars, of the monies, properties and items of value transferred from the board to Belmont since the two established an official affiliation in 1951.
Direct contributions to Belmont from the Cooperative Program alone equal about $110 million in 2005 dollars.

“One important point that must be affirmed is that the committee will never cease its willingness and desire to resolve the issues through private negotiations with representatives of Belmont,” Austin said.

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