One way to view Belmont’s dismissal of a lesbian soccer coach, and the self-inflicted public relations nightmare that ensued, is through a secular lens of justice, fair treatment and discrimination. Another view peers through a murkier fog of the Christian university’s religious doctrine and practice. These perspectives often coincide — think about civil rights leaders who ground racial justice in religious faith — but for Belmont they lead in very different directions, leaving the university in a navigational quandary as it ponders what kind of institution it really wants to be.
The justice angle is what fueled much of the public outrage that landed Belmont on front pages, blogs and newscasts, and kept them there for several days (with a feckless assist from the university’s PR arm). Even here in the Bible Belt-esque South, national momentum toward recognition of rights associated with sexual orientation has traction, and popular (and, by extension, legal) acceptance of civil unions and same-sex marriage rights will only expand. Corporate America gets it: Most Fortune 500 companies write sexual orientation into their nondiscrimination policies. Polls on LGBT issues broken down by age make it clear that anti-gay attitudes are succumbing to the mortality of their aging homophobic hosts.
Employment discrimination based on sexual orientation is legal in Nashville (and Tennessee); we aren’t among the roughly 20 states or 175 cities and counties that have enacted laws barring this sort of discrimination in employment or housing. And if you’re thinking those places are all coastal or collegiate, think again. Sure, the list includes New York, San Francisco, Boston, Seattle, Ann Arbor and Boulder, but also Kansas City, Charleston, El Paso, Scranton, Louisville and Peoria.
Nashville’s time will come, but a legal ban wouldn’t likely affect Belmont since most such laws have religious exceptions. A proposed federal employment nondiscrimination act, stalled now in Congress after House passage in 2007, would likewise exempt religious organizations.
But even if the law gives Belmont a pass on religious grounds, it’s clear from the sturm und drang of the past week that many aren’t inclined to extend the same moral exemption. A Christian university can cloak its bigotry and discrimination in a shroud of religious doctrine, but that doesn’t compel its stakeholders to admire the fabric or the fit. From within Belmont the alarm is loud and shrill: students organizing and protesting, faculty meeting and voting, and at least one major benefactor, Mike Curb, publicly calling on the university to take steps to ensure that “this type of injustice will never happen again.”
For some insight, Belmont’s administrators might look to the examples of two prestigious religiously affiliated universities, Notre Dame and Georgetown. Notre Dame splits the baby: sexual orientation stays out of its nondiscrimination policy because it might interfere with decisions “necessary to support Church teaching.” At the same time, Notre Dame welcomes “all people, regardless of … sexual orientation” and professes to “value gay and lesbian members of this community.”
Georgetown goes all the way, electing not to see religious doctrine and equal treatment as irreconcilable. Describing itself as a "university deeply rooted in the Catholic faith," Georgetown nonetheless bars discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in hiring and educational programs.
Belmont, a school that has doubled in size over the past decade and fashions itself “the largest ecumenical Christian university in America,” has a decision to make about its future. Having endured this burst of unwanted publicity framing it as a hick religious school in the South, does Belmont now reaffirm its membership in the odd moral orbit of doctrinaire Christian colleges alarmed about creeping secularization? Or does Belmont follow Georgetown’s model, fulfilling its aspiration to be taken seriously as a cosmopolitan university by acknowledging that a religious tradition and a modern sense of justice can coexist?
Bruce Barry is a professor of management and sociology at Vanderbilt University and a contributing writer for the Nashville Scene