Danielle Powell had one month left in her undergraduate college career when Grace University administrators discovered she was in a relationship with another woman. A judiciary board convened to decide whether Powell would be permitted to finish her studies at the institution. The conservative Christian college in Omaha, Neb. suspended Powell in March 2011 for “immoral behavior” for engaging in lesbian acts, but agreed to let her resume her degree if she participated in a restoration program.
The strict regimen moved Powell off-campus and forced her to attend church and seek counseling. She was expelled in 2012 when Grace University – formerly Grace Bible Institute – discovered she was still dating women.
“They were doing a witch hunt,” Powell said, “calling around to see if I was in a same-sex relationship.”
The college’s executive vice president, Michael James, wrote an official expulsion letter to Powell, stating that “it would be impossible for the faculty of Grace University to affirm your Christian character, a requirement for degree conferral.”
James also told the Huffington Post the rule outlawing immoral sexual acts has been in place for more than 70 years and students are aware of the policy. He quoted from the handbook saying, “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.”
Grace University is a member of the Association of Biblical Higher Education, an organization that accredits Bible-based colleges, and has a strict moral code.
The Association of Biblical Higher Education does not recognize same-sex marriage, stating that it “upholds the sanctity of marriage as God-ordained, a special union between a man and a woman, within which sexual relations are honored and affirmed by God.”
The association deems homosexuality and fornication biblical sins outlawed at their member institutions.
Powell did not consider herself a lesbian when she applied to Grace. She is a devout Christian, as evidenced by her willingness to submit a college application that asks if a student accepts Jesus Christ as the singular Lord and Savior. However, Powell experienced culture-shock when she arrived at Grace.
“I definitely didn’t know what I signed up for,” she said. “The institution itself is still very conservative and predominantly white, a lot of home-schooled pastors’ kids,” she said.
Powell – who was a member of Grace’s volleyball team and a volunteer at an on-campus homeless shelter – was undeterred when she was expelled. She married her partner, Michelle Rogers, and attempted to enroll in another college to finish her degree. However, Grace University officials refuse to transfer the credits she accrued, claiming she owes $6,300 – the amount of an academic scholarship she was awarded while attending.
The university denies withholding Powell’s academic transcripts, but she refutes that claiming she’s only been offered an unofficial copy that can’t be used to transfer credits.
James said the college is following governmental rules. He told the Huffington Post law requires reimbursement of all Title IV funds, including federal financial aid, if a student withdraws after the semester is 60 percent complete. “Suspension or expulsion constitutes withdrawal,” he claims.
Powell and Rogers disagree. The couple has launched a Change petition asking the school to drop the reimbursement claim and release Powell’s transcripts. Rogers writes in the petition:
“We are a young, recently married couple and this lingering debt – which Danielle should not have to pay and Grace University has no right to demand – is holding her back from achieving her dreams and putting us in a perilous financial situation.”
The Change petition has garnered more than 16,000 signatures in less than a week. The couple hopes Grace University forgives Powell’s debt so she can continue her education.
Powell will be the first person in her family to obtain a degree, an accomplishment she hopes comes to fruition soon.
“College was always kind of one of those things I never thought was an option for me because of my financial background,” Powell said. “It’s something I’ve invested too much in to not finish.”
Despite all she’s endured, Powell still considers herself a Christian.
“I chose my faith at a very young age, when I was 7, so it’s always been a very personal thing and definitely a big part of my identity and what I’m passionate about,” she explained