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Federal Appeals Court: Counseling Ethical Standards Trump ‘Biblical Views’

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The appeal of an Augusta State University student who refused to counsel gay clients was denied.

CREDIT: Augusta State University website

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals has rejected a lawsuit against Georgia’s Augusta State University that claims requiring anti-gay students to prove their ability to counsel gay clients amounts to religious discrimination.

While 24-year-old Jennifer Keeton, who studied school counseling, can further appeal the decision, she has now faced three courtroom defeats. The rulings in all three stated that Augusta State had a non-discriminatory reason to enforce its rules: adherence to professional standards, particularly the American Counseling Association’s Code of Ethics.

According to affidavits provided by fellow students, Keeton repeatedly affirmed that being gay was a choice and that she would tell LGBT clients that their behavior was “morally wrong,” seek out schools with no gay students at which to work, and refer gay clients to other counselors. The association’s ethical code prohibits counselors from imposing their personal morality onto clients.

Following her espousal of these perspectives in written assignments and in class, Augusta State faculty required that Keeton follow a remediation plan in order to complete her clinical counseling requirements. The proposed remediation included mandatory diversity workshops, interactions with the gay population, and outside readings and reflections.

With the help of the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative Christian legal group, Keeton sued the school in summer 2010.

“I want to stay in the school counseling program, [but] I can't honestly complete the remediation program knowing I would have to alter my beliefs. I'm not willing to—and I know I can't—change my biblical views,” Keeton said in a video released by the fund. Her lawsuit argued that the requirements imposed by Augusta State amounted to religious discrimination.

Judges and appeals courts have disagreed. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled with the school, saying that the standards were professional instead of religious [PDF]:

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. 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.

Recognizing the danger of setting a precedent restricting student speech, the court explicitly said that they were not ruling in favor of public schools banning unorthodox perspectives, or controlling the speech or belief of students. 

“Augusta State did not demand that Keeton change her beliefs or refrain from all expression of those beliefs,” the court said in the ruling. “Augusta State has the authority to require all students enrolled in its clinical practicum, which involves one-on-one interaction with actual counselees, to adhere to a code of ethics.”

In other words, it’s a matter of meeting standards, and a matter of academic freedom—not of taking the proper side in the culturewars. 

Shay O'Reilly is a reporter with Campus Progress. Follow him on Twitter @shaygabriel.

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