Danielle Powell, right, and her spouse Michelle Rogers are photographed in Omaha, Neb., June 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik)
by Margery A. Beck
OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — Danielle Powell was going through a hard time in the spring of 2011, just months away from graduating from a conservative Christian college in Nebraska. She had fallen in love with another woman, a strictly forbidden relationship at a school where even prolonged hugs were banned.
Powell said she was working at a civil rights foundation in Mississippi to finish her psychology degree when she was called back to Grace University in Omaha and confronted about the relationship. She was eventually expelled — then sent a bill for $6,000 to reimburse what the school said were federal loans and grants that needed to be repaid because she didn’t finish the semester.
Powell is now fighting the Omaha school, arguing that her tuition was covered by scholarships and that federal loans wouldn’t need to be repaid in that amount. She also notes she was kicked out even after undergoing months of counseling, spiritual training and mentoring insisted upon by the school following her initial suspension.
“I shouldn’t have this debt hanging over me from a school that clearly didn’t want me,” the 24-year-old said.
The university insists that the $6,000 bill covers federal grants and loans that, by law, must be repaid to the federal government because Powell didn’t finish her final semester. 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.
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.”
It’s not unusual to see gay and lesbian students disciplined or even expelled from private Bible- and faith-based colleges, but Powell’s case is unusual, said Ken Upton, an attorney at Lambda Legal. The national civil rights organization helps gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
“This particular case is unusual because there’s this fear that they might not release her information and they are demanding payback,” Upton said. “We don’t see that very often. Usually, the school’s just glad to be rid of them.”
In response to questions about the case from The Associated Press that included Powell’s financial aid letter, the U.S. Department of Education said in an email Friday that the issue of whether Powell owes money is between her and the school — but “it’s not at all because of federal rules.”
The department said it would need to analyze any case to determine if a school had violated federal discrimination regulations. But it noted that educational institutions controlled by religious organizations are exempt from some federal requirements that might conflict with the organizations’ religious tenets.