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A federal appeals court has upheld the right of Augusta State University to enforce standards of its counseling graduate program -- even when a religious student objects to requirements to treat gay people in a nondiscriminatory manner.

While the ruling may be appealed, it represents a strong victory for advocates of counseling standards that require that students be trained to treat a range of clients in supportive, nonjudgmental ways. The student who sued Augusta State, and already lost in a lower court, maintained that her First Amendment rights were violated when the university required her to complete a "remediation plan" over her willingness to treat gay people.

She had stated her intent to recommend "conversion therapy" to gay clients and to tell them that they could choose to be straight. (A wide consensus among psychology and sexuality experts holds that people don't select their sexual orientation and that encouraging people to change their orientation can be seriously harmful to them.)

The student, Jennifer Keeton, argues that her religiously motivated beliefs are being challenged by Augusta State's policies -- and that a public university may not do so. Keeton was expelled when she declined to participate in the remediation plan, and she asked a federal district court and the appeals court to order her reinstatement in the program.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit found that Augusta State had legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons to enforce its rules. The counseling program's accreditation depended in part on adhering to a code of conduct, and faculty members believed it was their responsibility to train students to work with a wide range of clients, the court found. The decision placed the counseling department's actions at Augusta State in the broader context of faculty members training professionals who must pay attention to the ethics of various fields.

"Just as a medical school would be permitted to bar a student who refused to administer blood transfusions for religious reasons from participating in clinical rotations, so ASU may prohibit Keeton from participating in its clinical practicum if she refuses to administer the treatment it has deemed appropriate," says the decision.

"Every profession has its own ethical codes and dictates. When someone voluntarily chooses to enter a profession, he or she must comply with its rules and ethical requirements. Lawyers must present legal arguments on behalf of their clients, notwithstanding their personal views.... So too, counselors must refrain from imposing their moral and religious views on their clients."

Keeton's suit is one of two brought by Christian students in graduate counseling programs against public universities. The programs are among those that train people to be counselors in schools or community centers. The programs embrace the ethics rules of the American Counseling Association, which requires that students be trained to work with clients whose views differ from counselors, without the counselors imposing their views on clients or judging their backgrounds. In the other case, currently on appeal, a federal judge rejected a suit against Eastern Michigan University.

The appeals court ruling in the Augusta State case reviewed the various claims Keeton made, and rejected them one by one, primarily by noting the academic and professional rationale given for the university's actions. The decision noted that the remediation plan imposed on Keeton was based on actions she was going to take (such as counseling gay people to change their orientation), not her religious beliefs. And the appeals court said that the requirements of the counseling program at Augusta State -- including those related to the counseling association's code of ethics -- were adopted for nondiscriminatory reasons.

"Nothing in the record indicates that the object of the curricular requirement is to infringe upon or restrict practices because of their religious motivation; rather, the evidence shows that, among other reasons, ASU adopted the ACA Code of Ethics to offer an accredited program," the appeals court ruling says. "Nor does the evidence indicate that ASU applies the curricular requirement in a selective manner that burdens only conduct motivated by religious belief; rather, the requirement applies equally to all students in the program.... In seeking to evade the curricular requirement that she not impose her moral values on clients, Keeton is looking for preferential, not equal, treatment."

The parties in the case are under a gag order, and so Keeton's lawyers with the Alliance Defense Fund, which focuses on the rights of religious students, among other issues, could not respond to a request for their reactions to the decision.

But an article on the Alliance Defense Fund's website offers its views on the case (from before the time when the gag order was imposed). The article quotes David French, senior counsel, as saying: "A public university student shouldn’t be threatened with expulsion for being a Christian and refusing to publicly renounce her faith, but that’s exactly what’s happening here. Simply put, the university is imposing thought reform. Abandoning one’s own religious beliefs should not be a precondition at a public university for obtaining a degree. This type of leftist zero-tolerance policy is in place at far too many universities, and it must stop. Jennifer’s only crime was to have the beliefs that she does.”

Steve Sanders, a visiting faculty member at the University of Michigan Law School, who has written extensively about legal issues related to academic freedom and sexual orientation, among other topics, said he sees the case as not focused on anti-bias policies. Rather, he said that the case was "about the ability of an aspiring counseling professional to deal competently -- that is, according to standards established by her chosen profession -- with a particular category of clients."

Sanders also said that the decision was about academic freedom. "It upholds the ability of a university, through its faculty, to determine curriculum and appropriate academic requirements and standards for a student to advance toward a degree," he said. "The court is saying that in the absence of any evidence of improper motive by Ms. Keeton's professors, the university's academic judgments are entitled to deference."

He added that he does not think "the Alliance Defense Fund is likely to get much traction if it brings cases involving clashes between religion and homosexuality in the curriculum, as opposed to student affairs policies. The right of an educational institution to control its curriculum is simply too well established."

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