ATLANTA — A federal judge has ruled that a Georgia university did not violate the First Amendment rights of a graduate student when it ordered her to attend “diversity sensitivity training” because her anti-gay beliefs were “incompatible with the standards of her desired profession.”
U. S. District Court Judge Judge J. Randal Hall last Friday dismissed the lawsuit against Augusta State University, and said that the plaintiff, Jennifer Keeton, who was enrolled in the school’s Counselor Education Program, was aware of the conduct standards set by the University and that she failed to prove those standards suppressed her free speech.
Keeton, 24, 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.
Keeton had said in and out class that, according to her Christian beliefs, homosexuality is “immoral, unnatural, and a ‘lifestyle choice’ that can be reversed through “conversion therapy.”
Faculty members said they were concerned that Keeton’s anti-gay beliefs would interfere with her ability to become an effective practitioner, as they conflicted with the professional ethical standards set forth by the American Counseling Association and the American School Counselor Association.
Keeton alleged the school-ordered remediation plan — which included attending diversity workshops, reading articles about counseling LGBT students and submitting monthly writing assignments detailing what she learned — violated her rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
With the help of Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian legal organization, Keeton filed suit seeking a court order allowing her to stay in the program without completing remediation, a declaration that her rights were violated, and monetary damages.
The court had previously refused to issue a preliminary injunction preventing Keeton’s expulsion from the program, a decision affirmed by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in December.
In that decision, the court said that Keeton was unlikely to prevail in her lawsuit, and as a result, was expelled from the program.
In dismissing her suit on Friday, Hall wrote in his decision that Keeton was “not being unlawfully compelled to affirm homosexual behavior because she would be required to do so only in the context of private meetings with clients — not in public statements.”
“The remediation plan imposed on Keeton pursuant to those policies placed limits on her speech and burdened her religious beliefs, but, as the allegations show, the plan was motivated by a legitimate pedagogical interest in cultivating a professional demeanor and concern that she might prove unreceptive to certain issues and openly judge her clients,” the court opinion stated.
“The allegations show, in sum, that while Keeton was motivated by her particular religious beliefs, defendants were not,” Hall ruled.