Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Lesbian Coaches, Christian Schools: It’s Gut Check Time at Belmont

The controversy over the departure of women’s soccer coach, Lisa Howe, from her position at Belmont University raises lots of interesting questions about the collision of religious freedom, LGBT rights and cultural change and Belmont is right in the middle of it all. Belmont is a private Christian school that has experienced tremendous growth and received increased national recognition in the last few years. After severing its ties with the Southern Baptists, Belmont has portrayed itself as a progressive Christian school that welcomes a diverse student body and faculty. They have been particularly noted for their music program’s connections with the music industry based in Nashville.

However, it seems like there is a disconnect between what Belmont students, faculty and many Nashville community leaders believe Belmont stands for and what the Belmont Board of Trustees and Administration stand for. Lisa Howe’s departure by “mutual agreement” (Resign or we will fire you, seems to be the basis for the mutual agreement), brought this disconnect out in full public view.

Belmont, as a private school, has the right to set its standards for employment. If they want to discriminate against LGBT employees based on the religious beliefs the school stands for, they have that right. The LGBT rights movement does not need to force private religious institutions into accepting us to achieve equality. I would argue that advocates for LGBT equality should respect Belmont’s right as a private Christian school to discriminate based on the tenets of their faith. However, they can’t have it both ways.

If Belmont chooses to discriminate against LGBT people, man up about it. Have the courage of your convictions. Don’t employ LGBT people and celebrate their excellence (as they did with Lisa Howe) only under the condition that they lie about and hide their sexual orientation. By making it impossible for Lisa Howe to continue in her position (resign or we will fire you) for the sole reason that she had the audacity to be honest about how she is, a Christian lesbian, you have put yourself in a real quandary, Belmont.

Belmont leaders appear to want their cake and to eat it too. They want all the acclaim, recognition and financial support they have received recently for advertising themselves as a progressive Christian school. They also want to remain true to the not so progressive religious belief that LGBT people are an abomination, sinners who are unfit for employment at Belmont. As one person, interviewed on Outside the Lines this weekend, described Belmont’s position, “They have one foot on the dock and the other foot on the boat and the boat is leaving the dock.” Belmont leaders are on their way to a full immersion baptism into the consequences of hypocrisy.

President Fisher tried to continue the charade of claiming that Belmont welcomes LGBT people in his press conference the day after Mike Curb, one of Belmont’s biggest financial supporters, threatened to withdraw his support unless Belmont changed its discriminatory policy. As they say somewhere in the south, Mr. President: “That dog don’t hunt.” Actions speak louder than words.

Belmont leaders now have a choice they have to make. The unofficial “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy will not work anymore. It won’t even work in the military anymore, Belmont. They will no longer be able to use claims of “mutual agreement” to mask anti-gay discrimination. The cat is out of the bag: Belmont wants to be seen as a progressive Christian school, but they may not actually want to be one. Belmont can choose to stick with the “no LGBT people” position and take the consequences of that position: Loss of community support, loss of big donors, loss of reputation as a progressive school, loss of faculty and students. Or they can do some deep soul searching and consider change. They could choose to enact a new non-discrimination policy that includes sexual orientation and gender identity. Whatever they do, it is their right as a private religious school.

True, if they maintain an anti-gay position, they will gain the respect of anti-gay hardliners on the Christian right, but larger cultural changes are working against Belmont on this. More people in national surveys every year support non-discrimination laws that include sexual orientation and gender identity. Over 50% of people surveyed now support same–sex marriage. More people have close friends, colleagues and family members who they know are LGBT. Almost everyone believes that anti-gay bullying in schools is unacceptable and that LGBT students deserve protection. These changes are taking place among Christians as well as non-Christians. The young generation of Christians, many of whom have been protesting the loss of a lesbian coach at Belmont, may not fully embrace homosexuality, but they clearly don’t condone discrimination against LGBT people as an expression of their Christian values. They get the complexities here. Lisa Howe is a Christian AND a lesbian. The younger generation gets this. Her team gets it.

So, Belmont leaders, what will you do? What would Jesus do? As Christians throughout the world prepare to celebrate his birthday this week, maybe it’s a good time to reflect on that.

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