Offers of legal and financial help are coming in for a woman who contends she was expelled from Grace University in Omaha because she is a lesbian.
Danielle Powell, 24, said Tuesday that she enrolled in the fundamentalist Christian university in 2007 but was expelled last year, a semester before her graduation, after school authorities learned that she had a relationship with a female student.
Although Powell has moved on, marrying a different woman, she is still caught in a dispute with Grace officials over financial aid. She says the university has denied the release of her transcripts, preventing her enrollment in another university.
Grace officials say that's not true and they have been willing to provide transcripts and transfer her credits.
Michael James, executive vice president of Grace, said he would like to discuss the case in detail, but federal privacy law prevents him from discussing a particular student's records.
However, James said, the student handbook, which every student receives, clearly describes conduct prohibited by the university and the consequences. He said every enrolled student has agreed to the principles stated in that handbook.
It 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 rules have been in place for 70 years, he said.
Powell's wife, Michelle Rogers, 22, whom she married last December in Council Bluffs, has launched an Internet petition criticizing the university, accusing officials of discrimination and “bullying at its finest.”
On Thursday morning, officials from Roosevelt University in Chicago extended an offer to Powell to complete her bachelor's degree at their school free of charge.
Roosevelt University, a private university of 6,500 students, would also pay Powell's bill at Grace.
“This is a Rooseveltian story,” said Lesley Slavitt, vice president of government relations and university outreach. “This is where people need to stand up, need to say what's happened there is not OK.”
Slavitt described Roosevelt as an institution committed to social justice.
Powell said Thursday she has been contacted by another person offering to pay the bill. Another person has offered free legal assistance, she said.
Powell said she's considering the offers.
“I don't necessarily want to award Grace with more financial support when I believe that my financial debt to them was already paid by the scholarship I was offered to go there,” she said.
Powell said she attended high school in Spearfish, S.D., but had family connections in Omaha. She tried out and made the volleyball team at Grace and was offered “a pretty generous” scholarship, she said. She also received federal aid. She said her calling was humanitarian, social justice and mission work.
She said she was a Christian when she entered Grace University, which enrolls about 500 students at its campus south of downtown Omaha.
“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 said.
Powell said she was not prepared for the conservative biblical culture at Grace. “I definitely didn't know what I signed up for,” she said.
There were more rules at Grace than in high school, she said.
“The institution itself is still very conservative and predominantly white, a lot of home-schooled pastors' kids,” she said.
She said her romantic interest in women arose only after several years at Grace.
In 2011, while attending a program on social justice and racial reconciliation at a civil rights foundation in Jackson, Miss., she had a relationship with a close female friend, Powell said. University officials found out, and despite attempts to remain at the school, she was eventually expelled, she said.
Powell said she believes she doesn't owe the nearly $6,000 the university is trying to recover. She said the bulk of the aid she received came from a scholarship, not federal aid.
However, James said that the dispute centers on federal aid but that he can't go into details. The university must recover federal financial aid from any student who received it but did not complete a semester.
“Trust me, this is extremely frustrating for me,” he said. “I would love to tell this story.”'
Grace University is upfront about its religious beliefs — in fact, the beliefs form the school's foundation.
When prospective students apply online for admission, they are asked to indicate whether they have accepted Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior.
The application contains an advisory that certain behavior will have consequences. It states, for instance, that traditional undergraduate students are to refrain from gambling; from possessing, using or distributing tobacco, alcoholic beverages and illicit drugs; and from going to nightclubs and bars.
All NC-17 and X-rated entertainment is prohibited, and behavior contrary to university standards may result in dismissal.
“By submitting this application, you acknowledge that you have read the above statements and are willing to live by the standards set forth by the university leadership during your time as a Grace student,” it states.
James said the university is a member of the Association of Biblical Higher Education, the accrediting association for Bible colleges.
In a position statement on religious freedom and human sexuality, the association acknowledges that marriage and human sexuality are contentious topics. The association further states 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.”
All sexual unions outside that definition are sinful, the association says.
The statement says the association recognizes the dignity of all people and doesn't reject people, only the actions Scripture defines as immoral.
James said the university's moral standards are an attractive feature for students and parents.
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