With a single public statement that was revised and redrawn several times over the course of about a week, Belmont University managed to land itself on the national map, just as it has been working to do for the past several years. But this wasn’t for any reason school officials would cop to.
On Dec. 2, the university released a statement that women’s soccer coach Lisa Howe had resigned. This came a week after Howe told her team that her same-sex partner was pregnant.
Several of Howe’s players spoke out, saying it wasn’t Howe’s choice to leave.
“She was fired,” junior captain Sari Lin said. “She was let go.”
On Dec. 3, Belmont changed its story and issued another statement, which said the two parties had reached a mutual agreement to end Howe’s employment.
When reached last week, Howe’s attorney Abby Rubenfeld cited a confidentiality clause and would not say if Howe resigned or was dismissed.
“I wish I could,” Rubenfeld said. “I wish I could, but I can’t.”
In a phone interview with The City Paper, Howe expressed regret that she wasn’t still coaching.
“I do miss the team,” said Howe, who was at Belmont for six years and had a winning record of 52-48-16. “I have invested a lot in that program. Coaching has been my life’s work, and it is my passion. I do want to make sure the next place I work has policies that make me feel safe and welcome working there, and help me feel like my family is welcome and safe working there.”
When asked if she would return if offered her job back, Howe said, “I would just have to consider. I would have to take my time.”
The fallout from Howe’s departure has been widespread and supercharged.
Student group Belmont Bridge Builders has demanded the school form a non-discrimination policy. University officials have twice rejected the group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students in its bid to be recognized as an official campus organization.
Bridge Builders and Belmont students and alum have organized two protests — the second drew more than 130 people and was held in below-freezing temperatures. And students held a sit-in last week outside Belmont president Bob Fisher’s office. The school’s faculty senate met and passed a resolution that “affirms the entire Belmont University community including its gay and lesbian members.” The resolution also stated “that the sexual identity of individuals should not impact that person’s standing on campus.” Members of the faculty also met with students in a closed-door session.
In addition, several church leaders have spoken up.
Melvin G. Talbert, a retired bishop of the United Methodist Church, was at the first protest and told the students “that justice will prevail.”
Erie Chapman, an ordained minister and former president of Baptist Hospital — where he changed the discrimination policy to protect workers on the basis of sexual orientation — joined several other ministers at last week’s protest outside the Gordon Inman Center on Belmont’s campus.
“For them to cite Christian values is an offense to Christian values,” Chapman said. “Frankly, I have to admit, I was a little naïve. I thought they were open about this. I didn’t realize until this incident that they would actually fire someone over this.”
Major Belmont donor and music executive Mike Curb, for whom the music business college and basketball arena are named, issued two statements. He asked Belmont to rehire Howe and expressed concern that if the matter isn’t resolved, the university won’t be able to attract major events in the future. In 2008, the Curb Event Center hosted a presidential debate.
Other prominent Belmont donors — Vince Gill, Amy Grant, Trisha Yearwood, Lee Beaman and Gordon Inman, as well as Belmont alum Brad Paisley — were not available for comment.
Marty Dickens, who is the chairman of Belmont’s board of trustees, told The Tennessean, “We adhere to our values as Christ-centered, and we don’t want to make apologies for that.”
Messages left on Dickens’ home phone were not returned.
Attorney John Ray Clemmons released a statement last week calling for Dickens to resign from his post as chairman of the Metro Convention Center Authority, which is overseeing the construction of the Music City Center.
“I simply found his statements to be downright offensive,” Clemmons told The City Paper. “The discriminatory nature of those in using religion to support discrimination is intolerable. As a member of that private institution, he has the right to say what he wants, and they have the right to do what they want. However, he also wears another hat … therefore, any statements that he makes publicly have a direct impact on the reputation of our city and the success of that $600 million capital-plus project right in the middle of town.
“Now he has gone public and made it known that he does not feel that everyone is welcome at his university, and it can’t but follow that he does not feel that everyone should be treated equal or should be welcome here.”
In addition, At-large Metro Councilwoman Megan Barry — who sponsored the law that protects Metro employees from discrimination based on sexual orientation — and Belmont-Hillsboro Neighbors Inc. released statements denouncing the university’s actions.
“The situation … reminds us that discrimination based on sexual orientation continues to be a source of injustice in our community,” Barry said.
Fisher addressed the media for the first time on Dec. 8, a full six days after the story broke. He read a brief statement but didn’t answer any questions.
He apologized for not doing a “good job in communicating. I am sorry for that and I take full responsibility.” He wouldn’t discuss personnel matters but said “in the 10 years I have served as Belmont’s president, sexual orientation has not been considered in making hiring, promotion, salary or dismissal decisions.”
Rubenfeld took those statements as a step in the right direction.
“I was delighted to hear that Belmont has adopted a non-discrimination policy,” she said. “I applaud them. I think they are leaders among Christian universities, and I am really eager to see the written version of the policy.”
She isn’t alone.
Belmont senior Erica Carter, who will graduate later this week, has been pushing for change since her coach’s departure. She has been vocal, speaking to local and national reporters and even talking on the nationally syndicated radio program The Bert Show last week. The communications and public relations major said this issue is bigger than Belmont.
“Overall, I think there needs to be legislative policy changes nationwide,” Carter said. “I think discrimination based on sexual orientation needs to be [outlawed]. There are about 20 states that don’t have laws that have protection for that. I think that needs to be changed.”
Howe wasn’t surprised by her team’s response, calling them “classy young ladies.”
“I thought they were mature beyond their years,” Howe said. “I am very impressed that they feel strongly and have gotten involved.”
As for her future, Howe said she’s excited to be a mother. As for where she goes from here, Howe doesn’t know.
“This experience has been so consuming that I haven’t had a chance to get to that next step where I am making that type of decision,” she said, calling the last week “overwhelming.”
“Definitely the support of the community, the Belmont students and faculty, my soccer team and also the coaching community,” Howe said, “just the support I have gotten is what makes this way more positive than negative.”