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Will gay students be ‘collateral damage’ to the cause of ‘religious liberty?’

The lgbtq community would do well for itself to pay attention to two lawsuits fueled by religious right organizations. From an article in a recent issue of the Augusta Chronicle:

An attorney for a graduate school counseling student told federal judges in Atlanta on Tuesday that the student’s First Amendment rights were violated when professors at Augusta State University sought to punish her for her biblical views on gay rights.

ASU put Jennifer Keeton on academic probation for saying it would be hard for her to work with gay clients, and threatened to expel her unless she attended events such as Augusta’s gay pride parade, Keeton’s attorney Jeff Shafer told the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Keeton initially sued ASU  when she was expelled from its graduate student program because she refused to take part in a mediation program. It required her to read material about counseling gays and increase her exposure to the gay community. The mediation program was set up after Keeton said that she would tell gay potential clients that their orientation was wrong and then try to help them “change” their sexual orientation.

Her lawsuit was struck down by U.S. District Judge Randal Hall last year. Hall said that the university had every right to set requirements for students. Hall also said that Keeton provided no proof that she was discriminated against because of her religious faith. According to The Augusta Chronicle in an article at the time:

In an Aug. 11 hearing, ASU professors testified that the plan was not a punishment for voicing her beliefs, but a tool to teach Keeton how to counsel clients while not imposing her views.

“All three professors testified that they never told (Keeton) that she was required to change her religious beliefs in order to stay in the counseling program,” Hall wrote.

He noted that Keeton did not testify at the hearing nor present any witnesses in support of her motion.

Hall said Keeton’s unwillingness to adhere to the school’s viewpoint-neutral code of ethics set by the American Counseling Association constitutes a refusal to complete the curriculum.

Keeton is now appealing this ruling. This recent article goes on to say that she allegedly told other students that she was interested in practicing “conversion therapy,” or therapy which claims to change someone’s sexual orientation. It also said that there was some concern that since Keeton was scheduled to practice in middle and high schools as a part of her degree program, her views could pose problems to students.

Keeton’s case is very similar to that of Julea Ward, who was removed from Eastern Michigan University’s counseling program in 2009 because she did not want to counsel to gays for the same reason as Keeton. She is also studying to be a guidance counselor. She sued EMU but lost last year for the same reason as Keeton. Her case is also being appealed.

The counseling programs by Eastern Michigan University and Augusta State University are guided by a code of ethics by the American Counseling Association. It is this code which both universities say are at odds with  Keeton and Ward. It forbids counselors from discriminating in their practices or imposing their view on potential clients.

Interestingly enough, the same anti-gay organization, the Alliance Defense Fund, is handling both Keeton and Ward’s case. David Kaplan,the chief professional officer for the ACA, had this to say about the Alliance Defense Fund:

“The driving force behind this is the Alliance Defense Fund. They are specifically looking for legal cases, not just in counseling, to promote their agenda”

In both the Keeton and Ward case, it is being demanded that the university counseling programs in question give allowances based on someone’s religious beliefs, even though these allowances would be against the code of ethics which govern these programs.

What’s more, these are cases in which both defendants have expressed a desire to be school guidance counselors.

It leaves me asking one question.

If universities can be successfully sued by individuals who don’t want to learn about counseling to gays on the grounds of “religious beliefs,”  what would stop middle and high schools from being sued by individuals who may not be hired if they state that they will not counsel gay students on those same grounds?

Where would that leave the lgbtq students who would undoubtedly be collateral damage to this supposed adherence to “religious liberty?”

Related post:

Why I get a nagging feeling every time I hear the phrase ‘religious liberty’

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Alvin McEwen

Alvin McEwen