Augusta State University (ASU) of Georgia was taken to court by a clinical psychology student, Jennifer Keeton, who refused to do coursework necessary for completing her degree. The coursework in question dealt with LGBTQ population. “In her brief, Keeton describes herself as a Christian who is committed to the truth of the Bible, including what she believes are its teachings on human nature, the purpose and meaning of life, and the ethical standards that govern human conduct. She holds several beliefs about homosexuality that she views as arising from her Christian faith. She believes that ‘sexual behavior is the result of personal choice for which individuals are accountable, not inevitable deterministic forces; that gender is fixed and binary (i.e., male or female), not a social construct or personal choice subject to individual change; and that homosexuality is a ‘lifestyle,’ not a ‘state of being.’” ASU’s officials became aware that Keeton held these beliefs when she expressed to professors in class and fellow classmates in and out of class that she believed that the GLBTQ population suffers from identity confusion, and that she intended to attempt to convert students from being homosexual to heterosexual. Keeton also said that it would be difficult for her to work with GLBTQ clients and to separate her views about homosexuality from her clients’ views. Further, in answering a hypothetical posed by a faculty member, Keeton responded that as a high school counselor confronted by a sophomore student in crisis, questioning his sexual orientation, she would tell the student that it was not okay to be gay. Similarly, Keeton told a fellow classmate that, if a client discloses that he is gay, it was her intention to tell the client that his behavior is morally wrong and then try to change the client’s behavior, and if she were unable to help the client change his behavior, she would refer him to someone practicing conversion therapy.” Keeton v. Anderson-Wiley, 11th Circuit Court of Appeals, No. 10-13925, D.C. Docket No. 1:10-cv-00099-JRH-WLB (Dec. 16, 2011)
This raises some interesting questions concerning free speech, free exercise and educational and professional accreditation.
Keeton’s stance is not only out of line with the prevailing views of homosexuality as expressed by the American Psychological Association (APA), but it runs afoul of the guidelines set forth in the American Counseling Association’s (ACA) Code of Ethics, which ASU was required to adopt and teach in order to offer a counseling program accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP). To resolve this problem, ASU put Keeton into a remediation program before she could participate in the program’s clinical practicum, in which she would have engaged in one-on-one counseling with a student. The remediation plan was to help Keeton learn how to comply with the ACA Code of Ethics and improve her “ability to be a multiculturally competent counselor, particularly with regard to working with [GLBTQ] populations.” Remediation is not a disciplinary action. As one ASU official described it, a remediation plan is “a plan to deal with the professional part of the curriculum that goes across the program, goes across classes. It’s a plan that is devised with students in order to help students to grow professionally in areas of weakness.”
The ASU student handbook states that students can be placed on “remediation status” when a “student’s progress is not satisfactory on interpersonal or professional criteria unrelated to academic performance.” As in Keeton’s case, the student then receives a remediation plan “outlining the faculty’s concerns” and “delineat[ing] what conditions the student must meet to be removed from remediation status.” Keeton was warned that failure to complete the remediation would result in her being dismissed from the program. After agreeing to the remediation, Keeton was allowed to participate in the program’s clinical practicum. Soon thereafter, Keeton withdrew from the clinical practicum, stating, “I am not going to agree to a remediation plan that I already know I won’t be able to successfully complete.”
Rather than complete the remediation so she could complete the required clinical practicum for her degree, Jennifer Keeton filed suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that requiring her to complete the remediation plan violated her First Amendment free speech and free exercise rights. Keeton also filed a motion for a preliminary injunction seeking to prevent ASU’s officials from dismissing her from the program if she did not complete the remediation plan.
The Georgia courts denied her request for preliminary injunction, stating that Keeton had not met the first requirement for granting such an injunction – establishing a substantial likelihood of success on the merits with respect to her free speech and free exercise claims. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed to lower court’s ruling.
The school did not say Keeton could not practice her religion or say what she likes, but rather said that by refusing to treat LGBTQ patients under accepted professional guidelines that she was not fulfilling the educational requirements for the degree she sought. Consider an alternative situation: a geography student who believes in the Flat Earth Theory and refuses to teach anything else as part of their teaching practicum in pursuit of their Ph.D. Surely the school is reasonable in withholding a degree from said person when they allow their personal beliefs to interfere with their course work required for completion of the degree, but especially when said belief contradicts the scientific consensus within the field? Not challenge mind you. Contradict. To challenge a fact is to dispute it as being unjust, invalid, or outmoded. Dispute means to argue to the contrary or alternative. Contradict means to imply the opposite or a denial of fact. When dealing with scientific facts, like any finding of fact, disputing them is part of the fact finding process but it must be based on evidence, not belief. Keeton presented no evidence for her beliefs, only the assertion that because that’s what she believes, it must be true.
Do you think Keeton would have been sanctioned so if she had merely presented her beliefs as an alternative instead of an absolute? Do you think Keeton’s treatment by ASU was fair, both in their administration of policy and adherence to educational standards of the field? Do you think that the court was correct in their finding that Keeton had failed to establish a substantial likelihood of success on the merits with respect to her free speech and free exercise claims?
What do you think?
Kudo to Otteray Scribe for pointing out this story.
~Submitted by Gene Howington, Guest Blogger