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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, August 27, 2010 - Volume 38 Issue 35
Anti-Gay student loses lawsuit
Section One
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Anti-Gay student loses lawsuit

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

For the second time in two months, a federal judge has ruled that public universities may enforce the academic standards of their graduate programs, even when students claim those standards violate the principles of their religion. Georgia Judge J. Randall Hall refused on August 23 to enjoin Augusta State University from expelling Jennifer Keeton from a master's program in counseling.

She claimed that as a Christian she would recommend "conversion therapy" in the event she was called upon to counsel a Gay client.

Since there is a scholarly consensus among psychologists that such therapy does not work - in other words, you can't make Gay people straight - and can harm patients who undergo it, the university decided to intervene.

Keeton's program directors placed her in "remediation status," citing concerns that she was unable to counsel Gay clients. Students who are placed in remediation status must complete certain requirements or they are expelled from the program.

Keeton claimed that being forced to comply with the remediation program would effectively force her to change her Christian beliefs, something that she and her attorneys say a public university has no right to do.

In his ruling, Hall said the case was not about freedom of religion, but about maintaining reasonable academic standards.

"This is not a case pitting Christianity against homosexuality," he wrote.

Hall cited evidence submitted by the university showing that Keeton was sanctioned not for her religious views but for the university's belief that she was going to act in ways inconsistent with the professional standards under which it trains students.

Faculty members testified that they did not care about Keeton's religious beliefs or require that she change them to continue in the program - only that she agree to treat people within the nondiscriminatory standards of the profession.

The university also submitted affidavits from fellow students in which they said that Keeton told them that as a counselor she planned to tell Gay clients that their conduct was "morally wrong," and to try to get them to "change" themselves.

She also reportedly said she would seek to work in schools without any Gay people or that she would refer Gay people to other counselors.

Counseling standards specifically state that it is not permitted to refer clients because of sexual orientation or other factors, and that counselors are required to be able to work with all groups.

In his decision, Judge Hall wrote that these facts made the issue not one of religious belief, but of specific curriculum-based decisions appropriately made by a faculty.

"The record suggests, and the testimony at the hearing bolsters, that the plan was imposed because plaintiff exhibited an inability to counsel in a professionally ethical manner - that is, an inability to resist imposing her moral viewpoint on counselees - in violation of the ACA Code of Ethics, which is part of the ASU counseling program's curriculum."

Hall added that "matters of educational policy should be left to educators and it is not the proper role of federal judges to second guess an educator's professional judgment."

Hall's framing of the case as one of academic standards was very similar to last month's ruling by a different federal judge in Michigan.

In that case, Judge George Steeh rejected claims by Julea Ward that Eastern Michigan University had violated the 1st Amendment's free exercise of religion provisions when it ordered her to counsel Gay clients or be removed from its graduate counseling program.

The judge found that the university was enforcing a legitimate curricular requirement - namely that counseling students learn to work with all kinds of clients in ways that did not judge their values or orientations.

"Courts have traditionally given public colleges and graduate schools wide latitude to create curricula that fit schools' understandings of their educational missions," Steeh wrote in his decision.

"Counseling, by its very nature, relies on a uniquely personal and intimate relationship between the counselor and client to assist in delivering the objectives sought by the client. Educating counselors to provide such services is clearly within the expertise of the universities that provide such programs.... [Ward] knew the university's curricular goal of teaching students to counsel without imposing their personal values on their clients by setting up boundaries so as not to be judgmental."

Ward was represented by the Alliance Defense Fund, a right-wing Christian legal organization linked to Focus on the Family and Campus Crusade for Christ.

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