A three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled this month that a university could require a student seeking a degree in counseling, as part of her curriculum, to take courses on how to work with LGBT populations. The student had objected, saying such courses violated her religious beliefs.
The case, Keeton v. Anderson-Wiley, was brought by Jennifer Keeton, who said that the Augusta State University’s requirement that she take LGBT counseling coursework violated her First Amendment right to free speech and free exercise of religion.
Keeton was a graduate student in Counselor Education Program. And, according to the court’s decision, she considers herself to be a Christian “committed to the truth of the Bible.”
“She holds several beliefs about homosexuality,” noted the decision, including the belief that being gay is a disorder, which does not square with professional standards. She told a professor that, if she were counseling a gay student, she would tell them it is not okay to be gay, that it is morally wrong, and that she would try to change the client’s behavior, including through the use of conversion therapy.
University officials perceived her to be deficient in the “ability to be a multiculturally competent counselor, particularly with regard to working with gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning (GLBTQ) populations.” The school would not allow Keeton to proceed with her degree’s required experience in one-on-one counseling until she completed the LGBT coursework.
Keeton initially agreed to do the additional coursework, but then changed her mind and filed the lawsuit, with the help of the Alliance Defense Fund, a national conservative legal group which has filed many cases seeking the right to discriminate against LGBT people based on a freedom to religion argument.
In making its ruling December 16, the court noted that Augusta State University is not a public forum and, therefore, university officials “may impose restrictions on speech that are reasonable and viewpoint neutral.”
“The crucial or ultimate fact that will determine Keeton’s viewpoint discrimination claim, then,” said the panel, “is ASU’s motivation” for imposing the additional coursework. In this case, the panel said, it could not find any evidence that the university imposed the additional coursework “because of her views on homosexuality.”
“Rather, as the district court found,” said the panel, “the evidence shows that the [additional coursework] was imposed because she expressed an intent to impose her personal religious views on her clients, in violation of [counseling professional code of ethics] and that the objective of the [additional coursework] was to teach her how to effectively counsel GLBTQ clients in accordance with” the professional counseling code of ethics.
The panel said it found that Augusta State “has a legitimate pedagogical concern in teaching its students to comply with the” American Counseling Association Code of Ethics.
Lambda Legal Defense, which filed a brief in the case in support of the university’s position, applauded the decision.
“Augusta State University had legitimate concerns to require Ms. Keeton to complete a remediation program after expressing her desire to subject LGBTQ youth to dangerous conversion therapy,” said Greg Nevins, supervising attorney in Lambda’s Atlanta office. “If a counselor cannot respect the dignity and promote the welfare of her LGBTQ clients and uphold the American Counseling Association Code of Ethics, she is not a competent counselor.”
The Alliance has filed similar cases elsewhere and is likely to appeal one or more to the U.S. Supreme Court.