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An effort by some Methodists to block the George W. Bush Presidential Center from coming to Southern Methodist University failed Wednesday, though clergy and lay leaders wrestled with the issue for almost four hours at a regional conference in Dallas.

The United Methodist Church’s South Central Jurisdiction, which owns SMU, has been bracing for a showdown over the Bush library for months. On Wednesday, a committee worked agonizingly through a series of resolutions designed to distance the church from a public policy institute planned as part of the library complex.

The group voted to reject a potentially divisive proposal calling for the conference to reverse a decision by the church’s Mission Council granting SMU the ability to lease land to the Bush library foundation for up to 250 years.

Instead, it approved a resolution saying it expects the institute to protect SMU’s “integrity,” signaling that committee members don’t want the institute’s work to affect SMU’s academic independence.

That resolution will be presented to the full conference today.

Members of the committee said their hands were mostly tied because SMU has signed a detailed legal agreement with the foundation committing itself to the three-part complex, which also includes a library and a museum.

The institute has drawn criticism from some Methodists who say that Bush policies conflict with church teachings. With the institute on SMU’s campus, they say the church will be seen as supporting political views.

But supporters of the institute say the facility is consistent with the United Methodist faith’s commitment to academic excellence and open debate.

The committee’s long deliberation included questioning of representatives from SMU and discussion of trying to separate the institute from the university.

Several options were considered and rejected, including a proposal to require that church representatives be appointed to the governing bodies of the library and the institute.

SMU spokeswoman Patti LaSalle told the group that SMU would have at least one representative — maybe more — on the governing board of each facility. But changes to the legal agreement probably could not be made without renegotiating parts of the deal, she said.

SMU began planning a bid for the library in 2001 but was not officially chosen until February. Part of SMU’s bid was ensuring it had access to space on campus for the entire Bush complex, including the institute. Bush officials have said the institute will be an independent public policy facility, which will be overseen by the Bush library foundation.

Despite an intense but polite debate within the 24-member group, committee members said they eventually agreed there was little they could do to change the status quo.

“I came into the door knowing it was a done deal,” said Andrew Hernandez, a lay leader from Houston who was on the committee. “The resolution was the best we could do, but it’s not the end of it.”

He predicted a long session when the measure is presented to the full conference today.

 

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Copyright (c) 2008 The Dallas Morning News

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