Federal Judge: Counseling Student Has No Right To Impose Anti-Gay Beliefs On Clients

Think Progress | By Zack Ford | June 27th, 2012

Jennifer Keeton

A federal judge in Georgia has ruled that Jennifer Keeton’s constitutional rights were not violated when Augusta State University expelled her from its counseling program for her unwillingness to abide by its professional ethics. Keeton insisted that homosexuality is an “immoral personal choice” and refused to affirm a gay client’s behavior as “right or healthy.” The 11th Circuit previously dismissed Keeton’s appeal for a preliminary injunction, pointing out that “counselors must refrain from imposing their moral and religious values on their clients.” Judge J. Randal Hall, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, concurred in his decision last week dismissing her complaint:

Keeton’s conflation of personal and professional values, or at least her difficulty in discerning the difference, appears to have been rooted in her opinion that the immorality of homosexual relations is a matter of objective and absolute moral truth. The policies which govern the ethical conduct of counselors, however, with their focus on client welfare and self-determination, make clear that the counselor’s professional environs are not intended to be a crucible for counselors to test metaphysical or moral propositions. Plato’s Academy or a seminary the Counselor Program is not; that Keeton’s opinions were couched in absolute or ontological terms does not give her constitutional license to make it otherwise.

In his conclusion, Hall opined further that there are very clear limits to what extent individuals can impose their religious beliefs upon others in certain public settings:

One conspicuous and abiding theme of the American story is that individuals like Jennifer Keeton are free to choose their own spiritual path, and need brook no government trespass thereon. The Constitution guarantees that the heart may pulse to meters of its own design, deaf to public cadence. But when affairs of the conscience ripen into action – either speech or conduct – government is granted leave to regulate in behalf of certain public interests, including education and professional fitness. Boundaries drawn through decades of case law establish the whither and when of such regulation, and, after carefully considering the factual content of Keeton’s allegations, the Court concludes that Defendants acted within those bounds – there is no room to reasonably infer otherwise.

As the decision is careful to explain, at no point was Keeton asked to change her beliefs. She was merely expected to keep them to herself in compliance with professional counseling ethics. Not only did she refuse to do so, but she even expressed discomfort at the prospect of having to interact with LGBT people at all, objecting to the idea of attending a Pride parade for the sake of cultural immersion. Though she likely would not frame it this way, her intent was to harm gay clients, and the school had every right and responsibility to evaluate her performance in program accordingly.

The question of anti-gay Christian counseling students has also arisen in Michigan with the case of Julea Ward. A federal judge similarly dismissed Ward’s suit against Eastern Michigan University for her “refusal to change her behavior.” In an attempt to circumvent this ruling, the Michigan House recently passed a bill called the “Julea Ward Freedom of Conscience Act,” which would impose upon universities that counseling students essentially be free to refuse any aspect of their learning requirements that conflict with “a sincerely held religious belief.”

In the end, it is the professional ethics and scientific expertise that should dictate qualifications for counselors, not biased lawmakers or petulant students with insistent anti-gay agendas.

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