By BTL staff
On Dec. 16, a three judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit unanimously upheld a lower court’s ruling against Jennifer Keeton, a graduate student in counseling at Augusta State University. The court ruled that the school could expel Keeton, who refused to comply with graduate degree program requirements citing her “Christian beliefs that homosexuality is immoral.”
Keeton had stated her intent to recommend “conversion therapy” to gay clients and to tell them that they could choose to be straight.
In a statement issued by ASU in July 2010, the university stated that it does not discriminate on the basis of students’ moral, religious, political or personal views or beliefs.
“The Counselor Education Program is grounded in the core principles of the American Counseling Association and the American School Counselor Association, which defines the roles and responsibilities of professional counselors in its code of ethics,” the statement read. “The code is included in the curriculum of the counseling education program, which states that counselors in training have the same responsibility as professional counselors to understand and follow the ACA Code of Ethics.”
The Code of Ethics prohibits counselors from discriminating based on a number of factors, including gender identity and sexual orientation. “Counselors do not discriminate against clients, students, employees, supervisees, or research participants in a manner that has a negative impact on these persons,” the code says.
In applauding the decision, Lambda Legal said Keeton expressed intent to engage in discriminatory and harmful professional practices when working with LGBT students as a school counselor. Keeton claimed her first amendment rights were violated when the school required her to complete a remediation program to better understand LGBT issues.
In the Court’s opinion, Judge Rosemary Barkett writes, “Keeton does not have a constitutional right to disregard the limits ASU has established for its clinical practicum and set her own standards for counseling clients in the clinical practicum.”
Lambda Legal filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays and Georgia Safe Schools Coalition in opposition to a Keeton’s legal claim against Augusta State University. Keeton is represented by the Alliance Defense Fund.
“We are grateful to the Court for recognizing how potentially dangerous it would be for a counselor to allow her personal beliefs to get in the way of her ethical obligation to promote the well-being of all students, including LGTBQ youth,” said Greg Nevins, supervising senior staff attorney in Lambda Legal’s Southern Regional Office.
The decision placed the counseling department’s actions at ASU in a broader context, “Just as a medical school would be permitted to bar a student who refused to administer blood transfusions for religious reasons from participating in clinical rotations, so ASU may prohibit Keeton from participating in its clinical practicum if she refuses to administer the treatment it has deemed appropriate,” says the decision.
“Every profession has its own ethical codes and dictates. When someone voluntarily chooses to enter a profession, he or she must comply with its rules and ethical requirements. Lawyers must present legal arguments on behalf of their clients, notwithstanding their personal views…. So too, counselors must refrain from imposing their moral and religious views on their clients.”
Keeton’s suit is one of two brought by Christian students in graduate counseling programs against public universities in the past year-and-a-half. The Sixth Circuit is hearing a similar appeals case against Eastern Michigan University by a student named Julea Ward. In July 2010, Judge George Caram Steeh dismissed Ward’s suit, saying her dismissal “was entirely due” to her “refusal to change her behavior.”
Motivated by Ward’s ongoing case, some Michigan legislators have proposed legislation that would allow counseling students to decline serving certain clients without jeopardizing their academic success. Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette said in a March 11 statement that he supports the rights of Ward, who was dismissed after she refused to counsel gays.
In 2009, EMU dismissed Ward and she filed suit against EMU in U.S. District Court, asking to be reinstated. Schuette’s office filed an amicus brief in support of Ward in January of this year. “The religious freedoms enshrined in our Constitution do not evaporate when you step on campus,” Schuette said in the statement. “Unless these freedoms are vigorously defended, it sets a dangerous precedent that threatens education for all students of faith. We must strongly defend and protect the rights of any citizen to ensure the rights of all citizens.”