Victory In Georgia: Appeals Court Says University Can Require Religious Student To Follow Ethics Rules

Religious Right leaders are quick to try to deny rights to others, such as in their opposition to civil marriage for same-sex couples and their attempt to ban abortion and even restrict access to birth control. But they are equally quick to cry foul if they perceive that someone else is denying rights to them.

The Religious Right’s rigid mindset dictates that its adherents can do things on their own terms no matter what the law or anyone else says. As a student at a Georgia university and the Alliance Defense Fund recently discovered, federal courts don’t support that mentality.

Jennifer Keeton was pursuing an advanced degree in counseling at Augusta State University until it became clear that she intended to impose her religious beliefs on clients in violation of the professional standards of her academic program.

According to the Associated Press, Keeton said homosexuality is immoral, unnatural and a “lifestyle choice” that can be fixed through “conversion therapy.” She said she would have difficulty working with gay clients.

School officials said professional ethics required her to treat all patients fairly and in accord with accepted counseling standards. The school put her on a remediation plan.

When she refused to follow the plan and lost her first court case in which she argued that she was a victim of religious discrimination and that her free speech rights were being violated, she was expelled from Augusta State. 

Had the university allowed Keeton to violate the American Counseling Association Code of Ethics, the school could have lost its accreditation.

Keeton and her Alliance Defense Fund-provided attorneys appealed the initial ruling, but last week a federal appellate court rejected their claims. In Keeton v. Anderson-Wiley, a three-judge panel from the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Augusta State’s action.

“We conclude that the evidence in this record does not support Keeton’s claim that ASU’s officials imposed the remediation plan because of her views on homosexuality,” the decision said. “Rather, as the district court found, the evidence shows that the remediation plan was imposed because she expressed an intent to impose her personal religious views on her clients, in violation of the American Counseling Association (ACA) Code of Ethics, and that the objective of the remediation plan was to teach her how to effectively counsel GLBTQ clients in accordance with the ACA Code of Ethics.” 

The judges noted, “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.”

The Alliance Defense Fund declined comment to the AP following the decision.

Religious Right leaders are quick to try to deny rights to others, such as in their opposition to civil marriage for same-sex couples and their attempt to ban abortion and even restrict access to birth control. But they are equally quick to cry foul if they perceive that someone else is denying rights to them. This is a high level of hypocrisy that the court rightly did not stand for.

 All professions have requirements, ethics codes or other sort of rules, and if Keeton felt she couldn’t meet the standards, then she simply chose the wrong line of work.  The Constitution does not give anyone the right to impose their personal religious beliefs on others.

Maybe one day the Alliance Defense Fund and its allies will come to understand that idea, but I suspect I’d be holding my breath for quite some time before it happens.