The Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian organization dedicated to defending “traditional family values,” represents Jennifer Keeton, 24, a counseling graduate student at Augusta State University.
Keeton claims in her lawsuit, filed July 21 in the United States District Court Southern Division in Augusta, that the school threatened to expel her because of her Christian belief that being gay or transgender is immoral.
The lawsuit argues Keeton’s First Amendment rights were violated by the university because it stated her biblical opposition to homosexuality — that she would state in class and to other students — went against the professional code for being an ethical counselor.
Keeton also asked for a preliminary injunction to prevent ASU from expelling her or making her complete the remediation plan during the lawsuit.
On Friday, U.S. District Judge J. Randal Hall issued an order denying the preliminary injunction because Keeton did not meet the requirement of “establishing a substantial likelihood of success on the merits of her lawsuit.”
Hall noted that evidence thus far, including ASU faculty testimony at a recent hearing on the preliminary injunction, was consistent with ASU’s position that “it was not [Keeton’s] personal beliefs that were their concern, but rather only her inability to separate her personal beliefs in the judgment-free zone of a professional counseling situation, as mandated by the ethical standards incorporated into ASU’s curriculum.”
The judge also stressed that the case should not be viewed as “pitting Christianity against homosexuality.”
“This case is not about the propriety of Plaintiff’s views or beliefs, or any of the Augusta State University counseling faculty’s views or beliefs, regarding the topics implicated in this case,” Hall wrote.
“Despite any suggestion to the contrary, this is not a case pitting Christianity against homosexuality,” he wrote. “This case is only about the constitutionality of the actions taken by Defendants regarding Plaintiff within the context of Plaintiff’s Counselor Education masters degree program at Augusta State University, and no more,” he said.
Keeton, who wants to be a school counselor, wrote in a school assignment that Specifically, in a school paper assignment, Plaintiff wrote that “it would be hard [for her] to work with [the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer/ questioning] population,” according to court documents.
A faculty member reported that Keeton said she would counsel a patient that homosexuality is immoral, and an affidavit from a fellow student said Keeton expressed that she would try to “change” homosexual clients or refer them to conversion therapy to try to make them heterosexual.
According to the lawsuit, she was given a “remediation plan” that focused on her written composition skills and to “address issues of multicultural competence and develop understanding and empathy,” related to LGBT issues.
This portion required her to attend at least three workshops “which emphasize improving cross-cultural communication, developing multicultural competence, or diversity sensitivity training toward working with GLBTQ populations”; “continue to develop her knowledge base on GLBTQ issues by outside reading on the topic” by reading at least 10 articles in peer-reviewed journals related to effective counseling for LGBT people; and to “work to increase exposure and interaction with gay populations,” and to submit written “reflections” on this work, according to court documents.
Lawsuit part of a pattern
Keeton’s lawsuit is part of a pattern of similar cases from the Alliance Defense Fund. Judge Hall issued an order July 29 prohibiting attorneys from discussing the case with the media. However, before that ruling, ADF attorney David French discussed the case on numerous socially conservative television and radio shows.
“A public university student shouldn’t be threatened with expulsion for being a Christian and refusing to publicly renounce her faith, but that’s exactly what’s happening here,” French said in a statement. “Abandoning one’s own religious beliefs should not be a precondition at a public university for obtaining a degree. This type of leftist zero-tolerance policy is in place at far too many universities, and it must stop. Jennifer’s only ‘crime’ was to have the beliefs that she does.”
The university declined to speak publicly about the pending litigation, but issued a statement on its Facebook page on July 28.
“There has been much media attention focused on an allegation of discrimination by a student in our counseling program. Augusta State University, a unit of the University System of Georgia, does not discriminate against any individuals on the basis of their personal, social, political, or religious beliefs or views. No student is asked to change their religious beliefs or views in order to participate in any program,” the statement says.
“The counseling profession requires its practitioners to recognize that people set and adhere to their own moral compass. The professional counselor’s job is to help clients clarify their current feelings and behaviors and to help them reach the goals that they have determined for themselves, not to dictate what those goals should be, what morals they should possess, or what values they should adopt,” ASU further stated.
The ADF represented a student in a similar federal lawsuit at Eastern Michigan University. The school expelled graduate student Julea Ward, also in the counseling program, for her refusal to counsel people who are gay because she considered homosexuality a sin according to her Christian beliefs. The judge ruled against the student and ADF on July 26. ADF has vowed to appeal the decision.
The ADF is also currently appealing a March ruling against a counselor, Marcia Walden, who declined to counsel a person employed with the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control & Prevention about her same-sex relationship.
Walden referred the client to a colleague because she said counseling someone who is gay went against her religious beliefs. Walden was a counselor with Computer Sciences Corporation. This suit was filed in U.S. District Court of Northern Georgia.
Dyana Bagby contributed.