Belmont University has sent subpoenas to Tennessee Baptist Convention churches asking about gifts made to the Cooperative Program between 1951 and 2005 and whether they knew about or relied on a 1951 document at the center of a legal dispute when they gave them.
Messengers visit outside Two Rivers Baptist Church at a May 9 special session of the Tennessee Baptist Convention about Belmont.
Marty Dickens, chairman of the university's board of trustees, said in a Jan. 3 letter that not all TBC churches would be served, but only the largest donors, because Cooperative Program funds are at the center of a lawsuit filed by the state convention against Belmont last year. Belmont attorney Mark Tipps told EthicsDaily.com about 100 churches would be subpoenaed.
"We do not wish this request to create a costly or burdensome task for the churches and do not believe it will, but we have been informed by the Executive Board's attorneys that they do not represent the churches," Dickens said in his letter. "Unfortunately, this means that rather than seeking this information directly from the Executive Board, Belmont must request it from individual churches by sending them subpoenas."
The Tennessee Baptist Convention newspaper said Executive Director James Porch planned to issue a statement about Dickens' letter this week.
Tennessee Baptists sued Belmont Sept. 29 for $58 million, based on a long-lost document stating that if the university should ever pass from control by the Tennessee Baptist Convention, the convention had a right to recover all funds donated to the school. Belmont officials call it a historical "artifact" that either never was binding or has been superseded by more recent covenants.
Last year Belmont trustees amended the school's charter to allow them to elect their own board of trustees, citing a desire for a more diverse board that more resembles a student body that is 75 percent non-Baptist. In December Belmont elected the first eight trustees without first gaining convention approval, six of whom are Christians but don't attend a Baptist church.
The convention turned down a $5 million settlement offer by Belmont, which would have formally ended the 55-year-old relationship between the two entities.
"When the Executive Board sued Belmont, we at Belmont believed that a resolution of the disagreement between the Executive Board and the university could be reached within the Christian family without resorting to a secular court," Dickens said in his letter to churches. "We regret the decision of the Executive Board to take this matter to court. We continue to desire to mediate this matter, believing that this alternative is consistent with our faith."
Dickens said Belmont continues to be a Christian community with a Baptist heritage and looks forward to a day "when we can move forward together in a fraternal relationship that honors the Christian mission and character of Belmont and the Tennessee Baptist Convention."
TBC leaders have said they have no interest in a fraternal relationship or in funding institutions they cannot control. Prior to the rift, the TBC was providing about 3 percent of Belmont's annual budget.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
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