Judge agrees to hear motion to block Sweet Briar closure

The fight to save Sweet Briar College in Amherst heads to the Virginia Supreme Court on Thursday, June 4. Photo by Norm Shafer The fight to save Sweet Briar College in Amherst heads to the Virginia Supreme Court on Thursday, June 4. Photo by Norm Shafer

It’s been a good week for the activists trying to keep Sweet Briar College from closing. Nearly six weeks after the Amherst County college’s board of directors announced it planned to shutter the school at the end of the spring semester, the nonprofit Saving Sweet Briar announced it had raised $10 million in pledges from outraged alumnae. And today, a circuit court judge ruled that the Amherst County Attorney who is seeking an injunction to block the closure has standing to bring the action.

The injunction filed on March 30 in Bedford County Circuit Court by Ellen Bowyer, the county attorney for Amherst, claimed the board of directors acted in violation of Virginia’s charitable solicitations laws. Bowyer also claimed the board violated the terms of the trust that established the school as a “perpetual memorial” to the daughter of founder Indiana Fletcher Williams.

On April 10, Sweet Briar faculty members filed a motion in support of Bowyer’s suit, but Attorney General Mark Herring weighed in on the other side of the argument, filing his own motion in support of the board’s right to close the school and claiming Bowyer lacked the standing to file her injunction on behalf of the Commonwealth.

Bedford County Circuit Judge James W. Updike Jr. issued a split decision: He ruled Bowyer could challenge the board under the charitable donations law, but not under the state’s uniform trust code, according to a press release from Saving Sweet Briar.

Alumnae expressed determination to fight on to save their alma mater and defended Bowyer’s right to fight for Sweet Briar.

“This is a critical step forward in our fight to save our college and we express our gratitude to Judge Updike for allowing the County Attorney to advance the key element of her lawsuit against the college,” said Sarah Clement, the group’s chair.

Updike will consider Bowyer’s motion for an injunction Wednesday morning.

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