A federal judge has dismissed a lawsuit by a former student who challenged the right of Augusta State University's counseling program to require all students to learn to treat gay patients in a supportive, nonjudgmental manner. Judge J. Randal Hall found that the university's rules did not violate the rights of religious students such as the woman who sued.
The Augusta State case is one of two that involve public universities seeking to require counseling students to adhere to professional standards about equitable treatment and complaints from religious students who argue that their rights are being violated because of the university rules. The Augusta State suit has already been the subject of rulings at the district court and appeals court levels (with both rulings backing the university), but those decisions were about the request from Jennifer Keeton, the former student, for an injunction. This new ruling, in contrast, is about the merits of the lawsuit itself.
Specifically, Keeton's suit said that the university had no right to require her to complete a "remediation plan" over her unwillingness to counsel gay people in supportive ways. She said she was willing to counsel gay people, but also repeatedly expressed the view that gay people were making an "immoral personal choice." (A wide consensus among psychology experts and others holds that being gay is not a choice, that morality is not what makes someone gay, and that making such suggestions to gay people can be damaging.)
The university maintained that it was not trying to change Keeton's religious beliefs, but to adhere to the guidelines of the the American Counseling Association, which requires that students be trained to work with clients whose views differ from those of their counselors, without the counselors imposing their views on clients or judging their backgrounds.
Judge Hall's ruling largely refused to engage in debate about the morality of being gay or of the value of religious freedom. He framed the issue as an academic one.
He said that the issues should be considered this way: "Baldly stated in outline, they amount to no more than this: a student enrolled in a professional graduate program was required to complete a course of remediation after being cited for purported professional deficiencies by educators in her chosen field of study; she refused to do so and was dismissed from the program."
Given Keeton's suit, he said it was important to examine the reasons for the university's requirements. He concluded that these reasons were legitimate and not motivated by religious views.
"The counselor program's charge is to train and prepare students to become licensed professional counselors, and to this end ASU faculty and officials have incorporated into the program professional codes of conduct applicable to practicing counselors. Indeed, adoption of the professional codes and the concomitant remediation mechanism were measures animated in large part by the desire to obtain and maintain the counselor program's professional accreditation -- an important designation that assures students, employers, and the public that its curriculum meets professional standards. The legitimate sweep of the program's policies therefore cannot be doubted."
The judge noted that Keeton was free to believe whatever she wants about gay people, and that the department was focused, legitimately, on how she would treat clients in the future.
"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 judge wrote. "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."
Lawyers for Keeton could not be reached, but all parties in the case have been under a gag order. The Alliance Defense Fund, a group that advocates for religious students and represented Keeton, published this article after she sued, outlining her perspective on the case.