When Danielle Powell signed a statement agreeing to follow the rules outlined in the student handbook at Grace University, a small Bible college in Omaha, she had never dated a woman and had no particular plans to do so. As such, the prohibition on “sexually immoral behavior” including "homosexual acts" did not seem like an issue.
"I don't identify as being a lesbian," Powell said. "I love who I love based on my emotional connection with that person. It has nothing to do with gender."
Today, Powell is fighting the university over $6,000 in scholarships that Grace is demanding she cover after she was expelled a semester before graduation. The grounds for expulsion? Sexually immoral behavior, with a woman.
After eight months of being denied a transcript transfer because of an outstanding balance, making it impossible to transfer to another university, Powell has resorted to a Change.org petition that’s gathered more than 13,000 signatures demanding that Grace forgive the debt.
Grace is charging Powell -- who between public and private funds received nearly a full-ride scholarship -- tuition for her second-to-last semester, during which she was expelled. In addition to the code of conduct, the university’s student handbook notes that scholarship credits will not be applied until the semester is 60 percent complete. Students who leave before that point will owe the balance because Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965 requires colleges to return federal scholarship dollars on behalf of the withdrawn (or suspended, or expelled) student.
Powell finished 54.89 percent of the semester before she was notified of her expulsion via a letter from Grace’s executive vice president, Michael F. James.
“Despite serious reservations, the student development office decided to readmit you [after being suspended when Grace first discovered Powell’s lesbian relationship] based largely on professions you made to various faculty and staff members that such behavior had not and would not be repeated,” James said in the letter, obtained by Inside Higher Ed. (Powell said she simply agreed she "would not engage in any sort of premarital sex while attending Grace.") “The prevailing opinion is that those professions appear to have been insincere, at best, if not deceitful. I have had conversations with enough individuals with first-hand knowledge of your behavior to become convinced that it would be impossible for the faculty of Grace University to affirm your Christian character, a requirement for degree conferral. Therefore, it would be unethical for us to re-admit you knowing that we could not allow you to graduate. For you, it would be a tremendous waste of time and money.”
(James also says in the letter that Grace will provide transcripts “and any other assistance” needed to transfer to another institution.)
“I don’t think a lot of people are aware of the fact that you legally can be kicked out of a school in 2013 for being gay,” Powell said. “Yes, this is a legal, financial petition, technically speaking, but there’s a lot of morals and social injustice tied into it that is getting I think some necessary exposure, and that Grace University will be held accountable for at some point.”
Powell chose Grace because she could play volleyball there, she liked the intercultural studies program, and she knew the institution did good overseas humanitarian and social justice work. "No knowingly gay person would ever go to this institution," she said.
Her conflict began in 2011, when the woman she had been dating confided in a staff member after they broke up. “You can either come out about this or I’m going to,” Powell said the employee told them.
At first, the intercultural studies program handled it internally (the two were in Jackson, Miss., while Powell worked on a social justice project). Powell was ordered to move off-campus and her ex was sent to work on her academic project in Seattle a month earlier than scheduled. But word of the case worked its way up to top administrators, and the two women were flown to campus to attend a judiciary hearing in which they were questioned separately about their relationship and their remorse, Powell said. Initially, they were both suspended.
Powell was told she could re-enroll for her final semester if she agreed to a restoration program involving mandatory church attendance, meetings with counselors and mentors, and keeping in touch with a dean. It did not directly address her sexual behavior, Powell said.
“At that point I was like, I’ve worked really hard for this,” she said of her decision to go through with the program and re-enroll in January 2012. “I guess some people weren’t happy about that decision, so they continued to investigate my life. The dean of students actually was calling people that knew me and investigating whether or not I was in a same-sex relationship.”
One day, Powell’s mentor called her up to warn her that people were asking questions, she said. Later that night, she got the expulsion e-mail.
Grace officials declined to comment on Powell’s case, citing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. James sent the university’s official statement in response to a request for comment.
“Our student Code of Conduct, which is clearly outlined in the Student Handbook, states, 'Any student involved in sexually immoral behavior, including premarital sex, adultery, and homosexual acts, is at minimum placed on university probation and may be subject to a Judiciary Hearing,' " the statement reads. “Prior to beginning classes at Grace University, all students must review the handbook and sign a document agreeing that they ‘will live according to the university’s community standards, policies and procedures as outlined in this handbook.’ "
Asked whether Grace has punished students with expulsion or lesser penalties for engaging in prohibited behavior other than “homosexual acts,” James said yes.
Grace, a tightly knit Christian Bible college of fewer than 500 students, does not require students (unlike employees) to agree with its entire doctrinal statement, but does ask that they subscribe to seven tenets of faith, including “the Trinity” and “salvation by faith alone.”
Ron Kroll, director of the commission on accreditation for the Association for Biblical Higher Education, said that while there have been a variety of “lawsuits and things” that bear resemblance to Powell’s case, he wasn’t sure whether revoking scholarship funds “would be a common distinction." However, he added, “my assumption is that the federal financial aid program would require that to be returned.”
Most Bible colleges require students to sign a statement of faith when they enroll and then keep them posted for students, Kroll said.
For now, Powell is living with her wife and the petition’s author, Michelle Rogers, in Omaha (they were married in Iowa), where Rogers works in the children’s hospital emergency room. While she’s pleased that her story has gained traction as a civil rights issue, she really hopes it calls attention to how many students are negatively affected – sometimes severely – by compulsory withdrawal.
“I think it’s planting a seed of change at that institution and other institutions like that,” she said. “A lot of times, nobody ever fights back.”