When Danielle Powell fell in love with the woman she would marry, it ended up costing her nearly $6,000 — and her education.
Powell was finishing her psychology degree at Grace University in Omaha, Nebraska, when she started openly dating Michelle Rogers. Unfortunately for her, Grace isn’t your ordinary college, but a private Christian school that requires its students uphold a rigid code of “moral” conduct:
Grace University’s code of conduct for its students is strict: No kissing, no prolonged hugs and certainly no premarital sex. The school even monitors students’ television habits, forbidding HBO, MTV, Comedy Central and several other channels “because of the values they promote.” The rules are laid out in a student handbook and signed by students every year.
“No one was more surprised than me,” Powell recalled of her relationship. “I had been very religious since I was a small child, and that did not fit in with what I thought I believed.”
Last January, the university confronted her about the relationship and suspended her. To be considered for readmission, Powell had to undergo months of mandatory counseling, church attendance, spiritual training and mentoring, in addition to promising she wouldn’t engage in premarital sex. She obliged.
She was readmitted, but only briefly. Just a few days letter, Powell received a letter from the university’s vice president, Michael James, informing her that she was expelled.
James wrote that her re-admittance had been based on professions she made to various faculty and staff that she would change her behavior, but that “the prevailing opinion is that those professions appear to have been insincere, at best, if not deceitful.”
“I was livid,” Powell said. “I had done everything they asked me to do. I drove over to my mentors’ house and just bawled my eyes out.”
To make matters worse and prove their “values” once and for all, Grace University sent Powell a bill for $6,000, the tuition cost for her unfinished semester that should have been covered by federal loans, grants and scholarships. The school even refused to submit the proper transcripts and credits for her to transfer to another university unless she paid off the tuition she says should have been covered.
School officials declined to discuss specifics of Powell’s case, citing federal student privacy laws, but through a public relations agency said it would provide Powell official transcripts and transfer her credits.
Powell is skeptical. She noted that nine months after she was expelled in January 2012, the registrar’s office denied her request for her transcripts because of the bill, though she eventually received student copies of her transcripts.
Powell’s wife has launched a Change.org petition asking that the school take back its financial demands; as of Saturday it has close to 40,000 signatures. She writes:
Danielle dreamed of completing her degree at Grace University in Omaha, Nebraska and becoming the first person in her family to graduate from college. She earned scholarships to cover her tuition and, for 3 ½ years, contributed to the school both academically and in extracurricular activities, including playing on the volleyball team and starting an on-campus homeless outreach in Omaha’s downtown area.
In the spring 2011, that dream came to an end when university officials found out Danielle was in a same-sex relationship and expelled her from school just one semester short of graduation. She was told, “…it would be impossible for the faculty of Grace University to affirm your Christian character, a requirement for degree conferral.” Danielle’s life was completely turned upside down and her academic career ended simply because she fell in love with another woman.
The comments on this Associated Press article about the incident are disappointing, with a number of people dismissing Powell as a misguided girl who simply broke a contract with her school and must suffer the consequences. But the problem is much bigger than that: it’s about the culture of religious universities that impose their so-called “values” on students rather than acknowledge their own prejudice. These schools refuse to acknowledge that there’s more than one way to be a Christian, so when circumstances like this arise, they shatter a student’s life with no harm to the school at all. Isn’t it easy to blame your bigotry on a breach of contract?
Not to mention that while the school may have had the right to expel her, they displayed none of their so-called “grace” in charging her tuition costs for a semester when she wasn’t even in class.
There’s no question that Powell was a valuable member of the Grace University community who deserves far better than how she was treated. The real question, though, is why she’d choose to attend such a hateful school in the first place.