Gay military spouse's tuition woes illustrate conflict in state, federal law
By Gregory Phillips | The Fayetteville (N.C.) Observe | Published: May 3, 2014
FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — A same-sex military spouse says she was denied in-state tuition at Fayetteville State University because she is gay.
Jasmine Pollard said an advisor at FSU told her she did not qualify for the military waiver for out-of-state tuition because North Carolina state law defines marriage as between a man and a woman.
The North Carolina law is in conflict with federal law, which requires colleges to offer-in state tuition for military spouses and no longer distinguishes between same-sex and opposite-sex couples.
"Honestly, it was kind of a slap in the face," said Pollard, 20, whose wife is an active-duty soldier at Fort Bragg. They were married in California in March.
FSU issued a statement denying sexual orientation was the basis for the decision, but offered no other explanation for denying Pollard's application.
"The university categorically denies that it made any decision based upon the fact that Ms. Pollard is gay," FSU spokesman Jeff Womble said in an email.
Pollard's predicament is apparently the first occurrence in the UNC system. But similar situations have erupted at campuses across the country as same-sex military couples move to states that do not recognize their relationships, and they struggle to obtain benefits to which they are federally entitled.
"The problem is it's all a patchwork everywhere," said Chris Rowzee. "We've got to get it to where states are treating everyone equally."
Rowzee is a spokeswoman for the American Military Partner Association, a nonprofit that advocates for LGBT military spouses and their families.
Though some colleges in states that outlaw gay marriage have granted in-state tuition to same-sex military spouses, others have not, citing state laws. Rowzee said some colleges fear retaliation from the state governments that fund them if they follow the federal mandate. But colleges could forfeit federal funding if they don't offer in-state tuition as required by federal law.
Pollard is an Army reservist who returned to Fayetteville in February from a nine-month deployment to Kuwait. She wants to teach English in middle school. She filled out two residency forms in early April before learning about the military dependent waiver for in-state tuition.
Pollard said her admissions advisor at FSU told her that his superiors said she was not eligible for the waiver because state law defines marriage as between a man and a woman.
"I was kind of confused," Pollard said. "I said, 'I am a military dependent. Isn't that the point of the waiver form?'"
Pollard said she called UNC-Pemboke, who told her she could fill out the waiver form. But when she shared that with her FSU advisor, he called Pembroke officials and corrected them, she said.
"You get back home from serving your country and you're told you're not wanted at a school," she said. "It's very saddening."
The federal government, however, has recognized same-sex marriage since June 2013. That month, the U.S. Supreme Court found it's unconstitutional not to extend federal marriage rights and benefits to same-sex couples wed in states where their unions are legal. But states where same-sex marriages remain illegal aren't currently required to recognize marriages performed in other states.
Womble said the FSU Admissions Office denied Pollard's request "in accordance with the North Carolina State Residence Classification Manual."
The manual states that an active-duty service member stationed in North Carolina "as well as his or her spouse, dependent children, and dependent relatives who are living with the service member shall be charged the in-state tuition rate."
The manual does not distinguish between same-sex or opposite-sex couples, nor does the state statute that supports it. But state law defines marriage as between a man and a woman. Voters added that law to the state constitution in 2012.
"We have requested guidance from the University of North Carolina on what may appear to be a conflict between federal and state laws," Womble said. "We are awaiting their response."
Joni Worthington, a spokeswoman for the UNC system, also referred questions to the system's residency manual and state statutes. She did not respond to requests to clarify the system's stance on same-sex spousal relationships. The UNC General Counsel could not be reached for comment.
Worthington said she is not aware of any similar requests at other UNC colleges.
Pollard has the right to appeal to the university's Residence Appeals Board, Womble said. That body's ruling could then be appealed to the State Residence Committee, he said.
Pollard said she does not plan to appeal.
"At this point I'm kind of just tired of trying to fight the system," she said. "I really just wanted to go to school and learn."
Pollard said her options are to remain in the state until she qualifies for residency on her own, which would delay her career plans, or attend school in her home state of Virginia. Neither choice is appealing.
"I really don't want to leave my wife here and have to go to school in another state," she said. "Especially after we've already been apart so long. I don't really know what we're going to do at this point. My school ambitions are really important to me."
A similar case in Texas ended when the University of Texas at San Antonio reversed a denial of in-state tuition for the same-sex spouse of an Air Force captain. But a couple in Tennessee had no luck at Austin Peay State University, despite pleading their case to the Tennessee Board of Regents.
Rowzee said same-sex military couples who legally marry and, in some cases, have children, are being stationed in states where the contradictions between state and federal leave them vulnerable.
"All of a sudden they're in a legal quagmire," she said. "They're scared if they do step off the base, their legal relationship with their child might not be recognized.
Pollard just wants to see the law clarified.
"There's a lot of misinterpretation of the law going on," she said, "and nobody's really being held accountable for it."