The expulsion of a lesbian student by Grace University in Omaha may seem like the latest skirmish in the cultural war over homosexuality.
But Ronald Kroll, director of a group that accredits Bible-based colleges, said the real battle waged by religious-oriented schools like Grace is to encourage “moral purity before God” in all aspects of students' lives.
Similarly, Omaha's Creighton University, a Jesuit institution, also prohibits all sexual activity outside of marriage as a violation of the school's value system. Students who are caught breaking the rules are subject to discipline, which can include expulsion but rarely does.
“It is in direct conflict with the teaching of the Catholic Church,” said John Cernech, Creighton vice president for student life. “We make it very clear upfront. I think the students that come to Creighton understand that.”
Grace, which enrolls about 500 students at its campus south of downtown, is in the news this week. Former student Danielle Powell, 24, contended that she was expelled because school authorities learned that she had a relationship with a female student.
Powell, who later married a different woman, said she is still in a dispute with the fundamentalist Christian university over repaying financial aid. She said Grace has denied the release of her transcripts, preventing her from enrolling in another university.
Grace officials say that's not true, adding that federal privacy rules prevent them from discussing specific details. They said they have been willing to provide transcripts and transfer her credits.
Kroll, who heads the accreditation commission for the Association for Biblical Higher Education in Orlando, said it shouldn't be surprising that schools like Grace have strict rules on a wide range of issues: sex, alcohol, drugs, tobacco, pornography and gambling.
“It's the essence of who they are,” Kroll said. “Since these institutions, by and large, are preparing people for biblical ministry or spiritual engagement, they have lifestyle expectations. These are non-negotiable issues.”
In the same way, Cernech said, students who want to attend Creighton have to agree to the school's Catholic values.
“You make a choice whether you want to join this community or not,” he said.
Cernech said sexual misconduct among Creighton students is neither rare nor an everyday occurrence.
“We're not making bed checks,” he said. But university residence staff is alert to possible violations, which could result in suspension or expulsion but often can involve counseling and other lesser punishments.
“Our discipline system is based on education,” Cernech said. “The whole purpose is to try to help people grow and mature.”
Sexual conduct policies at religious schools often differ significantly from those of many other colleges and universities. It's common for nonreligious schools to set explicit rules about plagiarism, alcohol abuse and nonconsensual sex but otherwise ignore premarital sex.
“We're pretty well silent on that,” acknowledged Matt Hecker, dean of students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “We're in the business of providing education, and we're a public entity as opposed to a private entity.”
As a result, Hecker said, UNL defers to the laws and rules of the State of Nebraska. Those laws don't prevent young adults from having sex — or, for that matter, engaging in homosexual activity.
In the past, UNL had more rules to regulate student conduct. But Hecker said those waned decades ago.
In the 1970s, for example, in response to student protests, UNL began to allow dormitory residents more freedom. That included a controversial 1974 vote by University of Nebraska regents on letting students close their doors when they had visitors.
Over time, Hecker said, UNL and others in higher education moved away from the model of “in loco parentis,” which is Latin for “in the place of parents.”
But religious schools generally don't see their stricter rules as a way to take on a parental role. Instead, they say, it's a matter of establishing and enforcing a religious-based code of conduct. Of course, they add, many parents expect them to do so.
At Concordia University, a Lutheran school in Seward, Neb., the student handbook laments that casual sexual encounters dehumanize relationships “which God intended to be loving and marked by a lifelong commitment to one another.”
The Concordia handbook frequently quotes Scripture, including the apostle Paul's injunction in Ephesians: “Do not let immorality or impurity or greed even be named among you as is proper among saints.”
Kroll said many people reject the idea of living by the Bible's moral standards, and even some students who initially choose religious-based colleges may find they aren't willing to abide by that code of conduct.
Powell, the expelled Grace University student, said she was a Christian when she entered the school in 2007 but was not prepared for the school's conservative biblical culture. She said her romantic interest in women arose only after several years at Grace.
Thursday, 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, also would pay Powell's bill at Grace.
Powell said Thursday that she has been contacted by another person offering to pay the bill, while a third has offered free legal assistance. She said she's considering the offers.
World-Herald staff writer Joe Dejka contributed to this report.
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