An Augusta State University counseling student has filed a lawsuit against her school claiming it violated her First Amendment rights when it told her to change her traditionalist Christian views on homosexuality or get out.
The Alliance Defense Fund filed suit Wednesday on behalf of Jennifer Keeton, 24, seeking to stop the school from expelling her from her master’s degree program.
“They made a cascading series of presumptions about the kind of a counselor she would be and have consequently … tried to force her to change her beliefs,” David French, the ADF attorney representing Keeton in the case, told The Daily Caller. “It’s symbolic of an educational system that has lost its way.”
The suit alleges the university retaliated against Keeton for stating her belief that homosexuality is a lifestyle choice and not a “state of being,” and that gender is not a social construct subject to individual change. According to the suit, the school wants her to undergo a “thought reform” program intended to change her religious beliefs. She faces expulsion unless she complies, and the suit seeks to block the university from throwing her out for noncompliance.
“Is saying there is such a thing as a male and a female as distinct, and that gender isn’t merely a social construct … such a dangerous position that it has to be banned from a profession?” French asked.
According to court documents, one of Keeton’s professors, Dr. Mary Jane Anderson-Wiley, told her this past May she would have to undergo a remediation program intended to change her views on homosexuality.
The university’s Counseling Education Program handbook proscribes such programs for those whose conduct is “not satisfactory on interpersonal or professional criteria unrelated to academic performance.”
When Keeton received a copy of her program at a May 27 meeting, she saw the document questioned her ability to be a “multiculturally competent counselor” because she dissented from the prevailing view about homosexuality and tried to get others to see things her way.
It also warned her speech had violated various codes of ethics and her support for “conversion therapy for GLBTQ (Gay Lesbian Bisexual and Transgender) populations” departed from accepted norms of “psychological research.”
The National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality (NARTH), however, defends the practice Keeton advocated on its website and says many of the studies opponents of “conversion therapy” cite suffer from politically motivated biases and deliberately ignore contrary evidence.
The program also required her to attend at least three pro-gay sensitivity training courses by the end of this fall, read pro-gay peer-reviewed journals on GLBTQ issues, and participate in activities such as Augusta’s gay pride parade. She also was asked to familiarize herself with the Association of Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender Issues in Counseling webpage, which defines homosexual behavior as healthy and suggests gender is a matter of personal choice rather than biology.
The professors also required her to submit a “two-page reflection” each month of how her participation in pro-gay activities “has influenced her beliefs” and how future clients might benefit from her experiences.
“There is no question they are putting her through a kind of thought-reform program when you think about what they are doing,” French said. “It’s a re-education program pure and simple, and it’s … the state trying to invade the human heart and human mind to change her deepest beliefs.”
He continued by noting, “It’s unconscionable.”
Anderson-Wiley reportedly complained about Keeton’s Christian belief that homosexuality is sinful and demanded she choose between her faith and the American Counseling Association’s Code of Ethics.
“You couldn’t be a teacher, let alone a counselor, with those views,” court documents quoted Dr. Paulette Schenck, another of the university’s counseling professors, as having said in response to Keeton’s affirmation of her Christian beliefs.
And Anderson-Wiley subsequently told Keeton the faculty wanted her to “alter some of her beliefs,” court documents say.
According to e-mails between Keeton and the professors, the faculty does not expect her to change her personal beliefs and values, but rather wants her to not expect others to share her values or impose them during her counseling sessions.
“This is the unethical part — applying your own personal beliefs and values on other people and not truly accepting that others can have different beliefs and values that are as equally valid as your own,” court documents say Schenck wrote in an e-mail exchange with Keeton.
The ACA would not immediately comment on the facts of the case, but released a statement clarifying its standards.
“The ACA Code of Ethics serves to ensure that counselors and counselors-in-training conduct themselves in a way which is consistent with the ideals of the profession. As such, the core values of diversity, multiculturalism and inclusion are present throughout the code and are crucial to the ethical decision-making process,” Erin Martz, ACA’s manager of ethics and professional standards wrote in an e-mailed statement.
According to French, the university crossed the line by mandating Keeton hold a certain set of beliefs.
“This is not the role of the state to be supervising their students’ religious beliefs, must less mandating their religious beliefs,” French said. “They certainly believe the values they hold trump her religious beliefs and that she should change her religious beliefs to match their beliefs…[It’s] fundamentally coercive.”
The courts have defined “religion” as a deeply held worldview that holds the same place in a person’s life as a conventional religion such as Christianity or Islam; consequently, an effort to require students to adhere to a certain worldview could potentially violate the Establishment Clause.
As a result, French said the university’s effort likely violates the Establishment Clause as well as the First Amendment’s free exercise clause.
“The left has been extremely upset by the fact that you would even see a picture of the 10 Commandments, or hear a prayer, or see a nativity scene,” French said. “None of those things are coercive. Here they are actually coercing students, they are actually saying, ‘Your religious beliefs disqualify you from this program, and to stay in this program you must alter your beliefs.’”
He continued, “They are going beyond censoring speech and stampeding straight to trying to change her heart and mind on religious issues and religious beliefs.”
Augusta State University would had not comment on the case, but spokeswoman Tunisia Williams told TheDC that her school does not deny students admission to programs because of “their personal religious persuasions.”
Ed. note: A previous version of this story mistakenly identified Jennifer Keeton as Jennifer Keeting.
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