By DORIE TURNER
AP Education Writer
ATLANTA – A federal court has upheld a ruling that Augusta State University was within its rights to require a graduate school counseling student to keep her biblical views on gays to herself.
A three-judge panel ruled Friday that the university was following protocol when it put Jennifer Keeton on a remediation plan and threatened to expel her after she repeatedly said it would be difficult for her to work with gay clients. The university argued that it would risk its accreditation with the American Counseling Association if it didn’t hold Keeton to a code of ethics.
“When someone voluntarily chooses to enter a profession, he or she must comply with its rules and ethical requirements,” Judge Rosemary Barkett wrote in the court’s ruling. “Lawyers must present legal arguments on behalf of their clients, notwithstanding their personal views. Judges must apply the law, even when they disagree with it. So too counselors must refrain from imposing their moral and religious values on their clients.”
The appeals court ruled that the remediation plan was “reasonable” and it did not violate Keeton’s First Amendment rights.
Keeton filed a lawsuit claiming the institution was punishing her for her Christian views. The Phoenix-based Alliance Defense Fund, which brought the lawsuit, declined comment on the ruling because the case is still under gag order by the court.
A spokeswoman for the state Attorney General’s office, which represented Augusta State in the case, did not immediately return a request for comment.
Keeton, who said she’s a devout Christian “committed to the truth of the Bible,” enrolled in the school’s counselor education program in fall 2009 and soon began discussing her views that sexual behavior is a personal choice and that gender identity isn’t subject to change. University faculty were concerned that Keeton was scheduled to practice counseling in middle and high schools as part of her degree program and could possibly harm young students with her views.
Faculty members were alarmed after she wrote in a term paper that it would be hard for her to work with gay people. The school told her that her language was unethical according to guidelines from the American Counseling Association, and she was put on probation and warned she could be expelled.
She was asked in May 2010 to agree to a remediation plan that would require her to attend sensitivity training, read counseling journals and mix with gays at events such as the city’s gay pride parade.
Keeton refused to comply with the plan, which she said in court papers would require her to “tell clients wanting to hear it that homosexual sex is moral.”
A lower court rejected Keeton’s challenge, and the appeals court in Atlanta upheld that ruling.
The case has drawn national attention from religious groups and gay rights advocates.
The American Civil Liberties Union and Lambda Legal, the national gay rights law firm, took the opposing side. They argued that counselors shouldn’t discriminate based on sexual orientation and should avoid imposing their values on clients.
“We are grateful to the Court for recognizing how potentially dangerous it would be for a counselor to allow her personal beliefs to get in the way of her ethical obligation to promote the well-being of all students,” said Greg Nevins, an attorney for Lambda Legal.