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December 30, 2011

Counseling student can’t push beliefs on gay clients, court rules

Atlanta--A federal appellate court rejected an appeal from a counseling graduate student who claimed that forcing her to work with LGBT students violated her First Amendment right to freedom of religion.

Jennifer Keeton was going for a masters degree in educational counseling, but refused to abide by American Counseling Association ethics guidelines, which requires prospective counselors be trained to work with people of differing views without foisting the counselor’s opinions on them.

Keeton was a student at Augusta (Ga.) State University, but before beginning her practicum, where she would work one-on-one with clients, she made it clear that her Christian beliefs conflicted with the requirements to treat clients without imposing her own beliefs, which include that “sexual behavior is the result of personal choice for which individuals are accountable, not inevitable deterministic forces; that gender is fixed and binary (i.e., male or female), not a social construct or personal choice subject to individual change; and that homosexuality is a ‘lifestyle,’ not a ‘state of being.’ ”

She told professors and classmates that she believed LGBT people suffered from identity confusion and she would try to convert gay students to heterosexuality.

She told a professor who posed a hypothetical question about being approached by a student who was questioning his sexual orientation that she would tell him that it was “not okay to be gay,” according to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeal’s December 16 ruling.

“Similarly, Keeton told a fellow classmate that, if a client discloses that he is gay, it was her intention to tell the client that his behavior is morally wrong and then to try to change the client’s behavior, and if she were unable to help the client change his behavior, she would refer him to someone practicing conversion therapy,” the three-judge panel wrote in their unanimous decision.

School administrators viewed these and other incidents as an expressed intent to violate provisions of the American Counseling Association’s Code of Ethics; they asked her to participate in a remediation program so that she could comply with the ethics code before beginning her practicum. The ACA ethics code, administrators argued, required them to try to enlighten Keeton as to why she should not impose her own beliefs on her clients.

The remediation plan would have required her to attend workshops on cross-cultural communication, multicultural competence or diversity sensitivity, read articles in counseling or psychology journals on counseling effectiveness with the LGBT community, familiarize herself with the LGBT community by attending events, read the “Competencies for Counseling Gays and Transgender Clients,” and submit a monthly reflection on what she had learned.

While she initially agreed to the remediation plan, she soon changed her mind and sent administrators an email, withdrawing from the program. She filed motion for a preliminary injunction in July of 2010. This was denied by a federal circuit court before she appealed that decision and received the current ruling.

Keenon was represented by the Alliance Defense Fund of Arizona, which often brings anti-gay cases using a “freedom of religion” argument.

The three-judge panel of the appeals court cited cases positing that the power to restrict free speech “depends on the nature of the relevant forum,” and that the Counseling Education Program at ASU was not a public forum that guarantees free speech. Instead it was a private forum reserved for “a supervised learning experience,” connected to a professional association whose accrediting powers require that their codes be followed.

The court also found their requirement of the remediation plan to be “viewpoint-neutral,” and thus not unconstitutional.

“We conclude that the evidence in this record does not support Keeton’s claims that ASU’s officials imposed the remediation plan because of her views on homosexuality. Rather, as the district court found, the evidence shows that the remediation plan was imposed because she expressed an intent to impose her personal religious views on her clients, in violation of the ACA Code of Ethics, and that the objective of the remediation plan was to teach her how to effectively counsel GLBTQ clients in accordance with the ACA Code of Ethics,” the court continued.

The court also noted that many professional groups argue against reparative therapy as damaging. “Moreover, the ACA, in addition to several other professional organizations, including the American Psychology Association, holds that ‘[t]he promotion in schools of efforts to change sexual orientation by therapy or through religious ministries seems likely to exacerbate the risk of harassment, harm and fear for [GLBTQ] youth.’ ”

The court continued to pick apart Keeton’s arguments for another ten pages before dismissing her appeal. One of the judges on the panel, William Pryor, has in the past been criticized for his outspoken Christian beliefs. He was appointed to the bench by George W. Bush.

Keeton’s case mirrors one currently on appeal against Eastern Michigan University. Julea Ward, the student expelled from EMU’s counseling program, is also represented by the Alliance Defense Fund.

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