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Responding to change: Belmont Christian diversity increases

Just five years ago, Belmont’s christian culture was prominently one thing: Baptist.

More students identified as Baptists then, and every member of the university’s Board of Trustees were elected by the Tennessee Baptists Convention and had to be a member of that organization.

However, Belmont wanted to change that policy to better reflect a more denominationally diverse student population, Lake said. That desire was years in the making but went against the convention’s wishes and ratcheted up tensions between a rapidly growing institution and the organization that had been part of it for decades.

When the university defied the Baptists and appointed seven non-Baptists to its board in 2006, the Convention sued Belmont for more than $50 million. They cited a 1951 document, one the university said was void, that required Belmont to repay all funds it ever received from the TBC if Belmont ever appointed trustees from outside their convention.

The case looked to be headed to court in 2008 until both sides came to a settlement in November 2007. In it, Belmont agreed to pay the TBC $11 million over a 40-year period that started in 2008.

While Vice President of Spiritual Development Dr. Todd Lake said the trustee issue was the major, if not exclusive, reason that led to the dispute, leaving the affiliation forced the school to find its own spiritual beliefs that wouldn’t have happened as long as Belmont “had a gun to its head.”

“I think moving away from that sort of paternalistic relationship was a good thing,” he said. “At a certain point, you have to grow up.”

Just a few years later, that growing-up process is still happening. The school is still forming its own identity as an independent institution, associate university minister Christy Ridings said.

“We’re just now finding our stride to find out what it looks like,” she said.

That growth has also been shown in the denominational makeup of the student body. According to self-reported student figures, the number of Baptist students on campus has dropped from 26 percent to 18 percent since 2006. Since then, the school’s Catholic percentage of the student population has more than doubled to 14.2 percent, Lake said.

The highest percentage of students – 26.3 percent – identify as Christians, without naming a denomination. 10.9 percent identify as “Other,” while 1 percent of students identify as either Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist.

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