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Tennessee Baptists reject Belmont settlement, vote to remove trustees

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Tennessee Baptists meeting in special session May 9 rejected a settlement offer from Belmont University, choosing instead to remove the school’s trustees and pursue a path that could lead to litigation against the school.

Messengers to the special called meeting at Two Rivers Baptist Church adopted a recommendation from the Tennessee Baptist Convention Executive Board empowering a special study committee to “carry out all rights, powers, actions and remedies of the Convention” with respect to Belmont.

According to the recommendation, options available to the committee include “private negotiations/settlement, mediation, arbitration and/or litigation.”

That action in the afternoon session included a two-hour-long discussion on proposed amendments and amendments to amendments, all of which messengers eventually defeated before approving the Executive Board proposal as presented by a 1,383-103 vote.

The morning session ended with messengers rejecting, by a vote of 923-791, the Executive Board’s original recommendation dealing with a settlement offer from Belmont.

In that offer, Belmont offered to pay the TBC $2 million in cash, plus an additional $1 million per year for the next three years. That would have permanently ended the relationship between the two entities. By rejecting the offer, TBC messengers indicated they were not content to let Belmont walk away from its relationship with the TBC without a fight.

“This has not been a desire on our part to deal with this issue with Belmont…. But the convention had to respond to this,” James Porch, executive director-treasurer for the Tennessee Baptist Convention, said at a press conference following the meeting.

He added that the response by messengers was focused on what “could best be done” for the “Kingdom of God and the Tennessee Baptist Convention.”

“We are family, and our great desire has been for all these years that Belmont, especially, be a great part of the ongoing Tennessee Baptist Convention,” he said. “But we came to a crossroads in which Belmont by actions had chosen not to participate in the family, according to the way that the family is structured. Every family has structure, and the same is true with a religious organization.”

All told, 1,754 messengers spent roughly seven hours debating how to handle the situation with Belmont.

The TBC action on May 9 follows a November decision by Belmont’s trustees to change the university’s charter and become a self-perpetuating board. Previously, the TBC elected the university’s trustees.

The TBC’s position is that the action taken by Belmont in amending its charter without TBC approval was illegal. In addition, when the TBC began its relationship with Belmont in 1951, the two entities signed a contract that contains language indicating that if Belmont ever passed from Baptist control, Belmont would repay the TBC the value of any assets transferred to it.

Since 1951, the TBC has transferred more than $55 million in actual dollars of Cooperative Program allocations, alone. The value of these direct contributions exceeds $110 million in 2005 dollars.

“My opinion is that document today is just as valid, just as legal, just as enforceable as it was in 1951 when it was signed,” Randle Davis, TBC attorney, said. “… There has been nothing presented to us, and we have found nothing, that changes that document.”

Belmont contends that the contract is no longer valid.

The TBC is challenging Belmont’s actions on two fronts –- first, that the unilateral change to the university charter was done illegally, and that the TBC still has the right to elect Belmont’s trustees; and second, if the state upholds the legality of Belmont’s charter change, that the 1951 contract comes into play, entitling the TBC to repayment from Belmont.

In a legal maneuver designed to bolster its case in court, if it gets that far, the messengers voted overwhelmingly to remove 33 Belmont trustees whom the convention previously had approved.

“From the convention’s perspective, those trustees no longer are in office,” Davis said. “From Belmont’s perspective, I can only presume that they will not recognize the vote….”

The special meeting was called because the statute of limitations requires action within one year of Belmont’s charter change, filed Nov. 10, 2005, and the next TBC annual meeting falls outside that one-year timeframe.

Meanwhile, messengers also voted to look into selling or merging Baptist Health System of East Tennessee, hospitals which the convention owns. The health system is $220 million in debt.

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