Trustees of Baptist-affiliated Samford University are poised to vote on an officially sanctioned gay-straight alliance recommended by students and faculty, setting up potential conflict with the Alabama Baptist Convention.
The convention’s State Board of Missions met behind closed doors May 12 before appointing an ad hoc committee to meet with university officials regarding official recognition of Samford Together, a forum for students to discuss topics related to sexual orientation and gender identity “in an open-minded and accepting environment.”
State convention president John Thweatt and Executive Director Rick Lance issued a joint statement in April saying formal recognition of the group now operating under provisional status “would have serious implications for the relationship” between the 3,200-church state affiliate of the Southern Baptist Convention and the university founded by Baptists in 1841.
“Alabama Baptists have been consistently clear in affirming the Bible’s clear teachings on matters related to gender, sexuality and marriage,” Lance and Thweatt, pastor of First Baptist Church in Pell City, Ala., said in the statement. “We have every right and reason to expect our ministry partners and historic Alabama Baptist institutions to do the same.”
Samford Together received provisional recognition in the spring semester of 2106 and approval by the student senate last fall. Samford’s faculty voted April 27 in favor of the organization, moving the process toward the board of trustees. Samford President Andrew Westmoreland said trustees will think about the request over the summer, but any formal consideration likely won’t come before September.
Samford has had an informal gay-straight alliance for about a decade. A group started by a professor in 2007 met for a while and became inactive. A higher profile group called SAFE Samford (Students, Alumni and Faculty for Equality) started in 2011 has a closed Facebook group with more than 700 members.
Support for formal recognition grew after freshman Ike Lambert wrote a column in the student newspaper in 2015 suggesting that absence of a gay-straight alliance on campus is one reason Samford is regularly ranked among the “Most Unfriendly LGBT Campuses” by the Princeton Review.
“We must assert that Samford University seeks the betterment of all people, regardless of sexual orientation,” Lambert, who plans to attend law school after receiving his undergraduate degree in international business in 2018, wrote in the guest post. “We may have been one of the last schools to integrate in 1972, but we should not be one of the last schools to show our LGBT peers that they truly are welcomed here at Samford.”
According to the Alabama Baptist, leaders of the state convention believe official recognition of a discussion group would amount to advocacy. Thweatt and Lance said the faculty vote approving Samford Together “provides recognition for an agenda that we believe to be contrary to Scripture.”
Westmoreland said the group’s stated purpose is discussion, not advocacy.
“For this most fractured of contemporary topics, all institutions and families are striving to find paths toward loving, truthful conversations,” Westmoreland said in comments to the Alabama Baptist. “For Samford, that approach will include honest dialogue that affirms Scripture and offers compassion and the hope of Christ.”
The proposal comes at a time when many Christian colleges are struggling with ways to become more accommodating to LGBT students within constraints of church doctrine that any sex outside of heterosexual marriage is a sin.
Toward the end of April someone surreptitiously hung a rainbow flag in the cafeteria at Wheaton College, an evangelical flagship and alma mater of evangelist Billy Graham. After officials removed the unauthorized banner, a campus landmark regularly tagged with spray paint by student groups was painted with rainbow stripes and the words: “We Can’t Be Erased. We’re Here. We’re Queer.”
Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., a historically Baptist school which severed ties with the Tennessee Baptist Convention in 2007, approved Bridge Builders, a group that discusses LGBT issues from a faith perspective in 2011, after twice rejecting the organization as “potentially provocative or even divisive.”
Baylor University, affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas, has refused to officially recognize a sexuality forum but in 2015 dropped language banning “homosexual acts” from the school’s sexual conduct code.
Westmoreland, president at Samford since 2006, said in remarks to the faculty April 25 that he holds to the traditional view that marriage is between a man and a woman but is “not angry toward others who believe differently.”
Westmoreland acknowledged that some would like to see “a less nuanced approach” either fully supporting more recent views of human sexuality or a campus closed to exchanging viewpoints and ideas on the subject.
“That approach does not reflect who I am, so I would be incapable of leading in either of those directions,” he said. “Furthermore, I am convinced that neither approach is reflective of the Samford that I have come to know so well during these years that I have been here.”