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Hot on Campus | June 27, 2012

School wins case against counseling student

Religious freedom

District court judge rules Georgia school did not violate student's constitutional rights

Jennifer Keeton (Photo provided by the Alliance Defense Fund)

A Georgia student has lost another round in her battle with Augusta State University over her expulsion from the school's counseling program.

School administrators demanded Jennifer Keeton complete a remediation plan to correct her views on working with homosexual clients. When she refused, they kicked her out of the program. Last week, a state district court judge dismissed Keeton's case against the school, concluding administrators did not violate her constitutional rights.

The case hinged on whether the policies governing the counseling program were neutral and generally applicable to all students, regardless of their religious beliefs. Judge J. Randall Hall, of the Southern District of Georgia, determined that they were.

"The remediation plan imposed on Keeton pursuant to those policies placed limits on her speech and burdened her religious beliefs, but, as the allegations show, the plan was motivated by a legitimate pedagogical interest in cultivating a professional demeanor and concern that she might prove unreceptive to certain issues and openly judge her clients," he wrote in his opinion. "The allegations show, in sum, that while Keeton was motivated by her religious beliefs, Defendants were not."

The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), representing Keeton, filed suit against the east Georgia school in July 2010 after administrators put her on academic probation for acknowledging in private conversations and during class that she disagreed with homosexuality. School administrators claimed Keeton said it would be hard for her to counsel gay clients, a stance they said violated ethical standards for licensed counselors, as put forth by the American Counseling Association (ACA).

After putting her on probation, school administrators required Keeton to complete a remediation plan that included going to gay pride events, attending sensitivity training and writing monthly reflection papers detailing what she had learned.

Hall ruled that the counseling program's policies, taken from the ACA and the American School Counselor Association Ethical Standards, clearly stated that counselors must not impose their own values on their clients. Because they did not single out any particular belief, the policies were "viewpoint neutral," Hall ruled.

The judge also determined that the remediation plan met the standard for viewpoint neutrality because school officials only implemented it to make sure Keeton complied with the policies.

In December 2010, Hall denied Keeton's request for a preliminary injunction in the case, which would have allowed her to continue in the counseling program while the case wound its way through the courts. She appealed that ruling to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in Atlanta, losing there as well.

Attorneys on both sides have declined to comment outside the courtroom because Hall prohibited public statements about the case.

But in arguments before the 11th Circuit in November, ADF attorney Jeff Shafer argued Keeton's First Amendment rights were violated because the school targeted her for her expressed viewpoints. He compared the school's attempt to alter Keeton's beliefs in order to remain in the counseling program to a business school that required students to affirm capitalism or disavow socialism in order to graduate.

In his ruling, Hall compared Keeton's situation to that of an abortion provider who was required by state regulation to give women information about abortion alternatives. In a 1992 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court determined such regulations did not violate the abortion provider's First Amendment rights, even though they required him to provide information about pro-life options with which he disagreed. The government has the right to regulate certain professional conduct, as long as it does not single out a particular religion in doing so, Hall ruled.

Keeton's case mirrors that of another counseling student expelled from Eastern Michigan University over her views on homosexuality. A lower court judge dismissed the case in the school's favor, but the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the decision, ruling that the facts in the case could lead a jury to conclude that the school violated Julea Ward's constitutional rights.

In Ward's case, school administrators refused to allow her to transfer a gay client to another student counselor, even though they had allowed other counseling students to make transfers for non-religious reasons. The court chastised the school for what it said appeared to be religious discrimination against Ward.

In Keeton's case, Hall found no evidence that ASU treated Keeton any differently than other students, although no other students had expressed any opposition to homosexuality. He also found no evidence that school officials wanted to change Keeton's religious beliefs, only that they did not want her to impose her beliefs on others.

But Hall made it clear he agreed with ASU administrators that Keeton could believe whatever she wanted to, as long as she did not assert that her beliefs amounted to a universal truth.

"Keeton's speech and conduct were evidently impelled by the absolutist philosophical character of her beliefs, but that character does not entitle her to university accommodation and it is irrelevant to the court's analysis," Hall wrote. "Neutrality as a legal standard is immutable, it does not bend to the strength or tenor of personal conviction."