published Thursday, May 15th, 2014

Firing back at Bryan College: Two ex-professors sue college as new problems emerge

Jars sit out on a table full of notes that students wrote for departing professors at
Mercer Hall at Bryan College last month in Dayton, Tenn. Stephen Barnett, right
photo, is among two former professors who have sued Bryan College.
Jars sit out on a table full of notes that students wrote for departing professors at Mercer Hall at Bryan College last month in Dayton, Tenn. Stephen Barnett, right photo, is among two former professors who have sued Bryan College.
Photo by Erin O. Smith.

THE STORY SO FAR

Bryan College trustees recently approved a change to the school's long-held statement of belief. For more than 80 years the school's stance on creation has been: "that the origin of man was by fiat of God in the act of creation as related in the Book of Genesis; that he was created in the image of God; that he sinned and thereby incurred physical and spiritual death." In February, the board of trustees added a clarification stating that Adam and Eve "are historical persons created by God in a special formative act, and not from previously existing life forms." That move threatened the jobs of Christian professors who believe God may have used evolution as part of creation.

The college has been roiled by controversy since the trustees announced their clarification. Though not all disagree with the change, many have complained about the swiftness and secrecy surrounding the move. It also has highlighted other issues among faculty and staff who in February voiced disapproval of President Stephen Livesay with a 30-2 vote of no-confidence.

Alumni have penned petitions and letters, and students -- some of whom agreed with the revised stance on creation -- staged campus protests and mailed petitions to the board of trustees.

It started as a fight over how we were created.

And now the emotional debate in the heart of Bible country is headed to court.

Two former Bryan College professors are suing the conservative nondenominational Christian school and asking for their jobs back after refusing to sign a statement of belief that was recently narrowed to exclude the possibility that God used evolution as part of forming man.

The lawsuit filed this week is the latest affliction to hit Bryan College. But it's not the only one. On Monday, Bryan administrators notified staff that they were suspending all employer contributions to retirement accounts for May and June.

"We expect this benefit will remain suspended into the 2014-2015 fiscal year although the budget has not been finalized," a vice president wrote in an email to faculty and staff.

The school has already halted professor spending and announced the closing of a dorm next fall.

In their suit, science professor Stephen Barnett and education professor Steven DeGeorge say the college's recent change to its long-held statement of belief was unlawful. The two professors recently signed their contracts, but added amendments saying they agreed to the college's original statement of belief, but not to any changes to it. They cited the college charter, which states that the statement of belief cannot be altered "as long as it shall endure."

College President Stephen Livesay rejected the contracts, saying they were signed "under protest."

Exactly, Barnett and DeGeorge have said.

"The charter says no changes and that's what it means," DeGeorge said in April.

Neither professor wanted to comment on the suit.

Bryan originally filed a motion to resolve the matter in arbitration, but has since withdrawn that and agreed to proceed in the courts, attorney Rosemarie Hill said on behalf of the college.

"This is not Scopes Trial 2," she said. "This is an employer-employee issue with two faculty members. That's all it is."

Hill said the college will argue that it had the authority to alter the statement of belief.

"You might disagree with it," she said. "But the college, through its board of trustees, has the right to make the decisions it did."

In their suit, the professors point to language in the school's faculty-administrative guide. They say the board's recent action contradicts language stating that Bryan is "to represent a wide spectrum of religious denominations and the normal divergence that is characteristic of the larger American evangelical community."

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.

about Kevin Hardy...

Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...

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