Oral Roberts University
Either divorce your wife – or give up on completing your bachelor’s degree.
That’s the horrific dilemma Sabrina Bradford faced in 2015, when she was just 12 credit hours shy of finally finishing her bachelors in Social Work at Oral Roberts University, an Evangelical university in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Sabrina had moved to Tulsa in 2005 to move near some distant family members, hoping to create a stable life for her and her child. After struggling with years of minimum wage employment, she knew that the only way she could provide for her family was to pursue her education. “I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I was determined,” she said.
She knew she wanted to pursue Social Work – and after researching, she discovered that Oral Roberts University was the only social work program in Tulsa that was accessible off of the city bus. So her decision was made for her: She would attend ORU to pursue social work.
In 2011, she enrolled in ORU’s social program, taking a full load of courses while still working full-time. It was around that time that she met the woman who would soon become her wife.
“I met a wonderful, kindhearted woman during my journey who saw my passion and motivation to survive. She wouldn't let me become overwhelmed by my conquest for education. She took compassion on me and assisted me when I felt the most alone in this world. She filled the gaps and was my primary support over the next four years.”
Sabrina knew that ORU was not a welcoming school for LGBTQ students, so she struggled to keep her relationship and newfound quiet so that it would not interfere with her education.
In late 2014, same-sex couples secured the freedom to marry in Oklahoma – and Sabrina was thrilled. This was just after her soon-to-be wife endured a terrifying cancer scare, so they wasted no time in getting married. Sabrina and her wife said “I do” in January 2015.
Just as she was planning to begin her final semester in August 2015, Sabrina was summoned to the financial aid office one morning.
“When I arrived that morning, I was interrogated like a criminal and asked to reveal information not on my federal financial aid application,” she remembers. ORU had discovered that Sabrina’s tax documents listed her as legally married to another woman.
ORU wasted no time in putting a hold on Sabrina’s account that prohibited her from registering for classes and that she was not allowed to attend any of her current classes until further notice.
In a meeting with the Vice President of Student Life the next morning, Sabrina was accused of being a “fornicator” – despite explaining in intimate detail that she and her wife had not even been able to consummate their marriage because of her wife’s cancer.
Every attempt Sabrina made to appeal this decision was blocked. “My worst fear had come true; I couldn't finish school. I had a contract with the Oklahoma Department of Human Service for employment upon my completion, which would now be hindered.”
What Sabrina would come to realize is that despite the fact that ORU’s actions clearly violated basic non-discrimination protections afforded to all students, the university was allowed to discriminate because they were granted a religious exemption from the U.S. Department of Education, which permits religious colleges to ignore Title IX protections while still receiving federal taxpayer funding.
In December, Sabrina received an email from the Vice President of Student Life, saying, “We are trusting God that He will work everything out on your behalf including termination of the marital relationship as mentioned in your e-mail."
Sabrina knew immediately: ORU wanted her to divorce her wife in order to complete her degree. Left with no other choice, that’s exactly what Sabrina had to do. Her divorce from her wife was finalized in June 2017.
“I jumped through every hoop possible to try to complete my degree. I did everything O.R.U. asked me to do. It seemed like it was never enough. O.R.U. asked me to remove the pictures of my wife and anything related to LGBTQ or marriage equality on social
media. This included all the news articles and commentary I followed before attending O.R.U. This was part of their conditions to being allowed to continue my classes in Spring 2017.”
Sabrina was finally allowed to complete her degree in August 2017. But the degree came with consequences she never could have imagined: A divorce from the woman she loved, a diagnosis of clinical depression, and a feeling of being robbed of her college experience.
Now, Sabrina is channeling her traumatizing experience into her role as a plaintiff in REAP’s class-action lawsuit, demanding that the Department of Education stop granting the religious exemption that allows schools like ORU to abuse queer students using taxpayer funding.
“I'm still hurt. I'm still affected by this all these years later. I see discrimination enough as it
is. It was my tax money going to O.R.U., and I should have been allowed to attend
At many religious schools, colleges, and universities, LGBTQIA+ and other marginalized students suffer discrimination, abuse, isolation, and hardship. If this describes you, you are not alone. We are in this together.
REAP fights for the safety, bodily autonomy, justice, and human rights of LGBTQIA+ and other communities marginalized at many predominantly white, taxpayer-funded religious schools and colleges. Using campus organizing, storytelling through podcasting, documentary film, and speaking and preaching on campuses throughout the country, REAP empowers students, faculty, staff and alumni at these institutions to advocate for human rights, while shining a light on the dangers and abuses of a major educational pipeline of white Christian Supremacy.