It all began last month, when the private Christian college Belmont University fired women’s soccer coach Lisa Howe shortly after Howe revealed to her players that she and her same-sex partner were expecting a child. Belmont has maintained that Howe was not fired for her orientation, and resigned on her own. But no one in town really believes that. Howe’s players say she told them she wsa pressured to resign because of her orientation.
Belmont is a very conservative school. All faculty members are required to sign a declaration of faith before they’re hired. Until 2007, the school was officially affiliated with the Tennessee Baptist Convention. And as a private institution, Belmont was well within its legal rights to fire Howe. Tennessee’s anti-discrimination law does not include sexual-orientation, but even if it did, such regulations often include exemptions for religious institutions.
But that doesn’t mean Belmont is immune from criticism and pressure from outside the government. And in the following weeks, a curious thing happened. Belmont students held protests in support of Howe. Faculty members spoke out on her behalf. The Faculty Senate passed a resolution in support of the school’s gay employees, and demanded that school administrators sponsor an open discussion about Belmont’s discrimination policy. Belmont benefactor, trustee, and Nashville music baron Mike Curb threatened to withhold his financial support for the school, and wrote a public letter praising the faculty for speaking out on what he called a “basic civil rights issue.” (Interestingly, Curb was the Republican Lieutenant Governor of California from 1978-1982. He is also a partner in the gospel music company World Label Group.)
The payoff: Belmont trustees announced just today that they are adding sexual orientation to their non-discrimination policy.