The fight surrounding the recent expulsion of a lesbian student from her Christian college has sparked optimism from students working toward equality at their own Christian universities.
Danielle Powell was only months away from earning a diploma at Grace University in Omaha, Neb., when the administration discovered her same-sex relationship. Following her January 2012 expulsion, Powell is now fighting the school, which wants her to pay back $6,000 in federal grants.
Tyler Schmitt, a recent graduate of Abilene Christian University in Texas, said he was not surprised by the decision — he also worried about being expelled after coming out at his school.
Although Schmitt, 22, said he is angered by Powell’s treatment, he said her public fight could help other struggling gay students.
“What she’s done is bigger than herself, it challenged her university to make a change for the better,” he said. “This is civil rights activism.”
Schmitt signed the Change.org petition created by Powell’s wife, Michelle Rogers, urging Grace University to drop the bill for the uncompleted semester. The petition had nearly 57,500 signatures as of Tuesday morning.
The negative reaction toward the university’s decision is significant, said Adam R. Short, an openly gay rising senior at Baylor University, a Baptist-affiliated institution in Waco, Texas.
Short, 21, is part of a group trying to start a university-recognized gay-straight alliance. Though the group has tried for three years without success, Short said he has seen some overall improvement in gay rights. For example, the school’s residential assistants now learn how to deal with LGBT issues in their training.
“People are generally moving towards general acceptance and a more open view,” he said. “Universities and high schools are starting to realize that when they do this, they get a huge backlash.”
Grace University’s code of conduct bans premarital sex, kissing and same-sex relationships. The university discovered Powell was dating a woman in 2011. She was suspended and went through months of a school-mandated counseling then was expelled in 2012.
The Associate Press reported that school officials said privacy laws forbid them from discussing the case. Still, the university maintains they must pay back the $6,000 of federal funds because Powell did not complete the semester.
Christian News Minute, a religious news website, created a counter Change.org petition supporting the school’s decision, urging the administration to “hold Danielle Powell accountable for her decision.” The petition notes Powell was aware her violation because she signed the student handbook, which detailed the consequences of same-sex relationships. The petition had 40 signatures as of Tuesday afternoon.
Powell’s case is unusual because the school is demanding tuition reimbursement, said Richard Lindsay, the communications director at SoulForce, a group that fights religious discrimination against the LGBT community. Usually schools try to avoid media attention, he said.
SoulForce visits Christian universities to start dialogue about LGBT equality. Lindsay says the group works to remind universities that though they are private religious institutions, they do receive federal and state funding.
“The thing Ms. Powell’s case could really help illustrate is that none of these schools are really private,” he said. “There is taxpayer money that is going toward discrimination.”
Through his work with SoulForce, Lindsay said he has seen Christian schools become more aware of the issues that gay students face, even if they have not changed their policies.
Fights such as Powell’s are important because they break the “fear and paranoia” that the university’s stance promotes among gay students, he said. Lindsay says when people are afraid to be openly gay, it can be hard for them to find support.
“It only takes one person to stand up to the institution,” he said. “Suddenly all these other people who have been in silence and who are afraid realize they are not alone.”
At Abilene Christian, Schmitt said media attention from a New York Times article about the school’s ban on “sexual immorality” helped pressure the administration to work harder to reach out to gay students.
Schmitt hopes the same will happen at Grace University because of the publicity from Powell’s campaign.
Jamal King, 22, a recently graduated senior at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, said it was “mind-blowing” for him that this kind of discrimination is still happening.
King, former president of his school’s gay-straight alliance, said he is hopeful the case will make some Christians reconsider their stances on homosexuality and gays.
“It’s unfortunate that these kinds of cases have to come up,” he said. “But these are cases that make history and that will help us get somewhere.”
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