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Appeals court rejects anti-gay graduate student’s bid for reversal of her expulsion

Jennifer Keeton

Jennifer Keeton

ATLANTA — The U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld a decision by a U.S. district judge who ruled Augusta State University may expel a graduate student who refused to comply with graduate degree program requirements citing her Christian beliefs that homosexuality is immoral.

Jennifer Keeton

Jennifer Keeton, 24, who was 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” when the school told her that her anti-gay beliefs are incompatible with the standards of her desired profession.

Keeton sued the University in July 2010, claiming that faculty and university staff had violated her rights to free speech and the free exercise of her Christian faith when it told her that, in order to stay in the program, she would have to change her beliefs about homosexuality, which Keeton cited as “immoral, unnatural, and a ‘lifestyle choice’ that can be reversed through “conversion therapy.”

According to the lawsuit, faculty members allegedly assailed Keeton’s beliefs as “inconsistent with the counseling profession” and “expressed suspicion over ‘Jen’s ability to be a multi-culturally competent counselor, particularly with regard to working with gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning populations.’”

In supporting Augusta State in its actions, the U. S. District Court judge wrote, “The record suggests, and the testimony at the hearing bolsters, the Plan was imposed because Plaintiff exhibited an inability to counsel in a professionally ethical manner — that is, an inability to resist imposing her moral viewpoint on counselees – in violation of the ACA Code of Ethics.”

In its ruling on Friday, a unanimous three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit agreed with the district court judge, ruling that because Keeton was unlikely to prevail in her lawsuit, a court order for her preventing expulsion was unwarranted.

The court noted that the requirements of the counseling program—needed for its continued accreditation and compliance with the American Counseling Association’s Code of Ethics—are similar to the rules for judges, who must apply laws even if they consider them erroneous.

“In seeking to evade the curricular requirement that she not impose her moral values on clients,” the appellate court wrote, “Keeton is looking for preferential, not equal, treatment.”

Augusta State University spokeswoman Kathy Schofe told LGBTQ Nation last month that the university had tried to work with Keeton, suggesting she take diversity sensitivity workshops and attend the local Augusta LGBTQ Pride parade, but Keeton refused and declined to participate claiming the university’s “demands” violated her First Amendment rights.

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