- The Washington Times - Monday, July 26, 2010

Attorneys with the Alliance Defense Fund have sued Augusta State University in Georgia on behalf of a counseling student who claims the university told her to deny her Christian beliefs in order to graduate.

Jennifer Keeton, 24, who is pursuing a master’s degree in counseling, said she was ordered to undergo a re-education plan that requires her to attend “diversity sensitivity training,” complete additional remedial reading and write papers to describe their effects on her beliefs, according to the lawsuit filed Wednesday.

The ultimatum: Complete this re-education plan or be expelled from ASU’s Counselor Education Program.

ASU said Miss Keeton’s conduct violates the code of ethics to which counselors and counselors in training are required to adhere, including those of the American Counseling Association and the American School Counselor Association.

“It’s hard to conceive of a more blatant violation of her right to freedom of speech and her freedom of conscience,” said David French, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative-leaning group that defends religious freedom. “This type of leftist zero-tolerance policy is in place at far too many universities, and it must stop.”

ASU officials, in an e-mail to a Washington Times reporter, said they could not comment on the lawsuit.

“There is little I can say right now since there is a pending lawsuit. ASU does not discriminate on the basis of any individual’s moral, religious, political or personal views or beliefs,” said Kathy Schofe, the university’s public relations director.

Erin Martz, manager of ethics and professional standards at the American Counseling Association, said that although she couldn’t specifically address Miss Keeton’s case, “The ACA Code of Ethics serves to ensure that counselors and counselors-in-training conduct themselves in a way which is consistent with the ideals of the profession. As such, the core values of diversity, multiculturalism and inclusion are present throughout the code and are crucial to the ethical decision-making process.”

Miss Keeton’s case is one of several nationwide in which counseling students have been dismissed from programs or threatened with expulsion because of their Christian beliefs.

One case involves counseling student Julea Ward, who was dismissed from Eastern Michigan University’s School of Counseling after she refused to change her beliefs. After a client asked Miss Ward for advice on a same-sex relationship, she asked her adviser on how to help her client because, she said, she couldn’t morally affirm such relationships. Miss Ward ultimately referred her client to another counselor. The university dismissed Miss Ward from the program in March 2009. The case is now being litigated in federal court.

In Miss Keeton’s case, ASU has threatened expulsion because of the Christian ethical convictions she shares in and out of the classroom, given the proper context, on human sexuality and gender identity.

“I have, on a few occasions, shared my biblical convictions and views in assignments in class discussions and with other students,” Miss Keeton says in a video clip provided by the Alliance Defense Fund.

In the remediation plan, the university questions Miss Keeton’s abilities to be “a multiculturally competent counselor, particularly with regard to working with gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning (GLBTQ) populations.”

When asked by ASU faculty members why she did not attend a Christian school, Miss Keeton said that none of those colleges would accept her ASU credits and that those schools had much higher tuition rates.

“Christians are taxpayers, too,” said Mr. French. “They have as much a right to attend these schools as anyone else, and this public university is treating Christians as second-class citizens to even suggest such a thing.”

Faculty members also were concerned about Miss Keeton’s conversations outside the classroom, according to the lawsuit. They received reports from another student that Miss Keeton “has relayed her interest in conversion therapy for GLBTQ populations, and she has tried to convince other students to support and believe her views,” according to the legal documents provided by Alliance Defense Fund.

Miss Keeton told faculty members that she never communicated anything about “conversion therapy,” although she expressed to other students her religious beliefs on GLBTQ issues.

Court papers mention details of a private meeting between Miss Keeton and several faculty members, during which one faculty member said, “There are limits on what views Miss Keeton may express even outside the classroom or the counseling room.”

Miss Keeton told the faculty members that they had no grounds for assuming that her clinical performance as a counselor would be inappropriate in any way, or that it should disqualify her competence as a counselor or affect her standing in the counseling program.

Two faculty members, according to court documents, said that Miss Keeton is prejudiced because of her ethical beliefs on GLBTQ issues.

In reply, she asked them how her Christian convictions are any less acceptable than those of a Buddhist or Muslim student, to which one faculty member replied, “Christians see this population as sinners,” court papers show.

Miss Keeton said she thinks the professors’ assessments are unfair.

“While I want to stay in the school counseling program, I know that I can’t honestly complete the remediation plan knowing that I would have to alter my beliefs,” said Miss Keeton. “I’m not willing to and I know I can’t change my biblical views.”