Fallout from coach’s exit persists

It started with a women’s soccer coach who left her job, but Lisa Howe’s exit from Belmont was just the catalyst for a larger debate on campus and in the Nashville community about sexual orientation. And even though several weeks have passed, the discussion regarding sexual orientation nondiscrimination policies continues.

On campus On Jan. 20, Bridge Builders—Belmont’s LGBT student group that was rejected twice from official recognition by the administration—held their third petition signing in the Beaman.

“The petition is to recognize a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and allied student group,” event organizer Max Ellis said. “Students, faculty, staff, and alumni who sign are stating that they would be in favor of the university allowing such a group to form.” They received between 100 and 200 signatures, bringing the total amount of supporters to around 1,100. Bridge Builders plans to reapply for official recognition in March.

The university hasn’t made any official decisions regarding Bridge Builders or the school’s existing nondiscrimination policy. Belmont president Bob Fisher hosted five student discussion groups regarding the issue. Fisher declined the Vision’s request for an interview. Belmont’s Board of Trustees was scheduled to meet on Wednesday, Jan. 26, but no additional information was available at press time. Board chairman Marty Dickens did not return a call from the Vision asking for comment on the meeting agenda.

In the community The greater Nashville community has also engaged in a debate about sexual orientation nondiscrimination policies. Spurred by the controversy surrounding the exit of Lisa Howe, the Metro Nashville Council voted to consider a bill forcing all contractors with the city not to discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Currently, Belmont has multiple contracts with the city, including a lease agreement to use Rose Park for athletics events. On Jan. 18, the council passed the resolution, nicknamed the Contract Accountability Non-Discriminance Ordinance, 22-13 on first reading, with two abstentions.

The bill reads, in part, “Based on recent events concerning the employment practices of a particular Metropolitan Government contractor, it is the desire of the Metropolitan Council that the Metropolitan Procurement Code be revised to prohibit discrimination based upon sexual orientation and gender identity.” Moments after the vote, Councilman Tim Garrett noted that unless the council votes on something major, all resolutions should pass unanimously until later stages of debate. The resolution was the only bill introduced that night that had any “no” votes.

“In all the years we’ve been here, we’ve always passed on first read,” Garrett said.

The resolution requires two more majority votes to become law. The second of the three required votes will occur during the council’s next meeting on Feb. 1. More than 40 Nashville businesses and organizations—including churches, restaurants, and even Bookfool.com—are listed as supporters of CAN DO on the Tennessee Equality Projects’ website.

According to the Nashville Business Journal, some local company leaders and council members believe the legislation could hurt businesses by restricting economic opportunities across county and city lines.

“That’s not good for the economy; it’s not good for business,” David Fowler, president of Family Action of Tennessee, told NBJ for a story in the Jan. 21 issue. At least two local businesses, Zycron Inc. and Pinnacle Construction Partners, both of which were founded by Darrell Freeman, are formalizing nondiscrimination policies in response to the recent debate.

“If we don’t hire the best people, our competitors and the marketplace will punish us,” Freeman told the NBJ.

Timeline When women’s soccer coach Lisa Howe left Belmont on Dec. 2, a chain of events followed that caused Belmont to be placed at the center of a national debate regarding civil rights and sexual orientation. Here’s what happened:

Tuesday, November 30 Lisa Howe, Belmont’s women’s soccer coach since 2005, tells Bruins soccer player Erica Carter that the athletics department gave her the option to resign or be terminated following her announcement to the team that she and her same-sex partner were expecting a child. Thursday, December 2 At 6 p.m., BelmontVision.com breaks the story about Howe’s departure. About four hours later, the university releases a statement through communications director Greg Pillon saying that Howe “informed the university of her intent to conclude her employment with Belmont.” The statement, attributed to Strickland, said, “This was a decision Coach Howe made.” Friday, December 3 The Tennessean runs a front-page story, “Belmont disputes gay coach was fired.” Reporter Mike Organ reports that he contacted Belmont’s president, Dr. Bob Fisher, who declined to comment, calling Howe’s exit an athletic matter. Organ quotes junior goalie Sari Lin as saying that she met with Strickland earlier that week to talk to him about her coach’s exit. “He basically said we have the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy, and when she told us about the pregnancy, it violated that,” Lin told the Tennessean. “He said you can hide your sexuality, but you can’t hide a baby. He pretty much told me that once the baby was born, she was going to get fired anyway, so it’s better to do it sooner than later.” Throughout the day, local media outlets, including the Nashville Scene, the City Paper, and local television stations, run stories on Howe’s dismissal. Belmont releases a second statement late Friday afternoon to address the “inaccurate information” on the part of the media. According to that statement, Coach Howe and Belmont “both agree that Coach Howe did not ‘resign’ from her employment. Neither was she dismissed. Rather, there was a mutual agreement that it would be in the best interests of both Coach Howe and the university for her to conclude her employment as coach.” Faculty Senate member Dr. Nathan Griffith posts a resolution he plans to propose at the next Faculty Senate meeting. It calls for a formal dialogue between faculty and administration. Announcements of planned protests to Howe’s dismissal begin appearing on Facebook. They are scheduled for finals week. CBSNews.com picks up the story from the Associated Press, and it remains the lead story on the site’s sports page throughout the weekend. Sunday, December 5 Marty Dickens, chairman of Belmont’s board of trustees, tells the Tennessean, “We do adhere to our values as Christ-centered, and we don’t want to make apologies.” He says policies that prohibit sex outside marriage apply to everyone at the university—faculty and staff, students, administrators and board members. The first of a series of protests is held on the corner of Belmont Boulevard and Bernard Avenue. Local media outlets cover the three-hour event, during which retired United Methodist Bishop Melvin Talbert speaks to the protesters in a show of support. Monday, December 6 Around 50 Belmont students protesting Howe’s exit hold a sit-in in front of Fisher’s office in Freeman Hall. They are unable to speak to Fisher, who is in Louisville at a Southern Association of Colleges and Schools conference. On Monday evening, the Belmont Faculty Senate passes a resolution supporting Belmont’s LGBT community and encouraging an open campus dialogue about sexual orientation and Belmont’s hiring policy. Howe releases an independent statement for the first time since her exit from Belmont. In addition to thanking her supporters, she also urges the media to “turn their attention away from me and toward the broader issues at stake that affect so many people in the Belmont community — such as what it means to be a diverse Christian community and how we can support and respect each other despite our differences.” Tuesday, December 7 The Vision obtains a letter from major Belmont donor Mike Curb calling what happened to Coach Howe an “injustice.” Curb, a well-known music business executive, wrote: “I will do everything I can to try to get the Board of Trustees to reconsider their position based on the fact that this is a basic civil rights issue.” He also congratulated the Faculty Senate for “backing the right of professors and staff not to be discriminated against based on their sexual orientation.” Sports Illustrated columnist Jeff Pearlman writes an article condemning Belmont’s alleged actions. The opinion piece on the front page of SI.com was one of many articles in a wave of national media coverage that was growing. Wednesday, December 8 More than 100 people attend a third protest and letter writing campaign in front of campus Tuesday. The group marched from the Beaman Student Life Center to Wedgewood Avenue in support of Howe. “It’s a really important issue and I’m glad it’s come to light at this time. Hopefully, this will serve to change the policies,” said sophomore Hilli Levin. After the protest, 80 Belmont students and faculty members gather for a closed-door meeting. The group called for an open discussion with administration and less ambiguity regarding Belmont’s nondiscrimination policies. Six days after telling The Tennessean that Coach Howe’s exit was an athletics matter, Belmont’s president makes his first public comments. Just an hour before Fisher was to speak, the university notified local and campus news outlets that he would make a media statement. In the statement, Fisher acknowledged and apologized for a “poor job in communicating” and the “pain, hurt and fear created among our students and community.” He also repeatedly stated that sexual orientation had never been considered in hiring, promotion and dismissal decisions at Belmont. He did not take questions after making the statement. Monday, December 13 Two Metro Nashville councilmen propose a resolution that would terminate the Rose Park renovation and use agreement between Metro and Belmont. The proposal cited a difference in policy between the two organizations as reason for the termination of the agreement. Friday, December 17 New York Times publishes a 1200-word story, “Lesbian coach’s exit from Belmont U. has Nashville talking.” The story quoted Fisher addressing the controversy of the previous two weeks. “I would have envisioned this kind of discussion being a lot more measured and taking a lot longer and probably producing a lot less heat in a typical, structured university approach. But we’ve got what we’ve got.” Sunday, December 19 ESPN’s Outside the Lines leads their program with “A Coach’s Story,” an eight-minute video piece that includes interviews with Lisa Howe, her former players, and members of the community. Tuesday, December 21 The Rose Park resolution was indefinitely deferred by the Metro Nashville Council. Tuesday, January 18 Metro Council passes a resolution on first reading requiring contractors with Nashville to not discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The bill requires three majority votes to become law. Wednesday, January 26 The Belmont Board of Trustees will officially meet for the first time since the controversy began. Tuesday, February 1 Metro Council will consider the non-discrimination resolution for the second of three times. March Bridge Builders, who have collected 1100 signatures in favor of official recognition of the group, will apply for the third time to become an official campus organization.

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