NASHVILLE, Tenn. – A university that came under fire from students for the departure of a lesbian women's soccer coach has added sexual orientation to its non-discrimination policy, but it was not clear whether it covered sexually active gays.
President Bob Fisher announced the policy approved by trustees, but wouldn't answer questions Wednesday regarding ex-soccer coach Lisa Howe. The private university has said her departure on Dec. 2 was a mutual decision. But students and players protested, saying Howe was let go because she told them she was having a child with her same-sex partner.
Belmont is a Christian university that had been affiliated with the Southern Baptists until it broke away in 2007. It is known nationally for its music business school and is widely regarded as progressive, so the accusation surprised some in the Belmont community.
At the time of Howe's departure, Fisher said that the university does not consider sexual orientation in admissions or hiring decisions. On Wednesday, he said the policy change simply affirms the practices already in place.
Asked whether his statements could be taken to mean that Howe was not pressured to leave because she came out to students, Fisher said he could not talk about any specific cases.
"This is a great victory for the values of inclusion, human dignity and respect," Howe said in a statement. "I am grateful to the Belmont board for recognizing that being gay and being Christian are not mutually exclusive. This is a landmark day."
Several reporters wanted to know whether Belmont was making a distinction between sexual orientation and sexual practice.
Belmont's student code of conduct lists sex outside of marriage as "sexual misconduct." Since gays and lesbians cannot marry in Tennessee, there is no way for them to be sexually active without violating the code.
Fisher would not say whether the new policy meant whether openly gay people could work at Belmont.
"I would put that in the category of a hypothetical," he said.
Fisher was less equivocal when asked whether homosexual practice, and not just orientation, has affected any hiring or firing decisions at Belmont.
"It has not, in my experience," he said.
The university heard criticism from students and donors after the Howe's departure. That included a statement from trustee emeritus Mike Curb, a music industry executive and major donor who called on the school to rehire Howe and "act like Christians."
Some also criticized the school for not allowing Bridge Builders, a group with a mission to support gay students and explore the intersection of Christianity and homosexuality, to form as an official student group.
Asked about the group at the news conference, Fisher said they were resubmitting their application.
"We'll see where that goes," he said.