DAYTON, Tenn. (CN) – When John Scopes taught the theory of evolution in a Tennessee school in 1925, he committed a misdemeanor punishable only by a fine. But yet the Scopes “monkey trial,” with Clarence Darrow as star defense attorney and celebrity prosecutor Williams Jennings Bryan, has gone down as one of the most significant trials of the 20th Century.
In the aftermath of that trial, a small Christian liberal arts college – named in honor of Bryan, “The Great Commoner” – opened in Dayton, Tennessee, where Scopes taught.
Bryan College has turned to the Rhea County General Sessions Court to obtain possession of a $6 million camp from a Christian athletic organization, even as there are questions over whether officers of the college improperly and unlawfully acquired the camp in the first place.
On Wednesday, General Sessions Judge Shannon Garrison granted the college possession of Fort Bluff Camp, a 68-acre property atop the Cumberland Plateau that once belonged to the National Association of Christian Athletes, after hearing testimony from a half-dozen witnesses.
NACA used the camp to host sports tournaments. Throughout the years, it hosted several national tournaments for Christian schools.
In the courtroom Wednesday, four attorneys sat on the side of NACA, compared to two for Bryan College.
The courtroom was not the famed hall where the Scopes trial was held. That is upstairs. In this courtroom, there is a sign that warns that people found passing tobacco and other contraband to inmates could be held in contempt of court.
During the court proceeding that he said should have been a “pretty straightforward detainer action,” Anthony “Bud” Jackson of the Chambliss Law firm – which is representing Bryan College – attempted to keep the argument over the camp within the “four corners of the lease agreement.”
According to Jackson, NACA and Bryan College created a lease agreement that could only be modified by writing around the time NACA transferred the camp to the college in 2016. It was supposed to pay $10,000 a month. But 12 months ago, NACA stopped paying rent. Simple enough.
But according to John Konvalinka, NACA’s attorney, the situation is anything but.
Two weeks ago, he filed a lawsuit in Rhea County Chancery Court alleging the Christian college and its officials did not follow Tennessee law and made misstatements to the IRS when ownership of Fort Bluff Camp was transferred.
The saga began when one of the founders of NACA and the camp was found guilty of sexual assault and officers of Bryan College, including its president, then became officers of NACA. Those officers, NACA’s lawsuit alleges, had a conflict of interest when they transferred the camp – the athletic association’s biggest asset — to the college.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Konvalinka tried to argue that the capital improvements NACA made to the camp after 2016 served as lease payments.
The attorney also attempted to cast doubt on the lease itself, pointing out that the lease NACA approved in 2016 said the organization was only set to pay a dollar a year but the lease NACA’s president signed said it would pay $10,000 a month.
Furthermore, he said NACA and Bryan College signed the agreement on June 28, two days before the quitclaim deed on the camp was executed and the college received ownership.
But the judge said many of the arguments Konvalinka made were better suited to be made in chancery court rather than general sessions.
“When I first heard this issue today about Bryan College not having title to this property when they entered that lease, that caused me great concern,” Garrison said while handing down his decision from the bench.
The lease contained a provision that anticipated the college acquiring the property.
“But for that provision, I can tell you this whole matter would’ve been going to chancery, but for that provision. But it’s there,” Garrison said.
However, in granting possession to Bryan College, Garrison said the general sessions court is one of limited jurisdiction that comes with a $25,000 cap on damages. The only exception is in forcible entries and detainers, which can involve violence and threats of violence.
Garrison said the situation between Bryan College and NACA was an unlawful detainer and he requested a one-page letter from each attorney by Monday on why he should enter a judgment of $25,000 or $120,000 – the amount Bryan College says it is owed in rent.
Bryan College officials declined to give comment to Courthouse News. John Ballinger, NACA’s interim president, said he didn’t think he could say anything until next Tuesday.
In an earlier court filing, NACA said that it would likely appeal an unfavorable decision.
At the beginning of the month, Bryan College announced that Tennessee Governor Bill Lee would be delivering the commencement address at its May 4 graduation ceremony.