Augusta State U. Is Accused of Requiring a Counseling Student to Accept Homosexuality

July 22, 2010

A graduate student in school counseling is accusing Augusta State University in federal court of violating her constitutional rights by demanding that she work to change her views opposing homosexuality.

In a lawsuit filed on Wednesday in the U.S. District Court in Augusta, Ga., the student, Jennifer Keeton, argues that faculty members and administrators at the university have violated her First Amendment rights to free speech and the free exercise of religion by threatening her with expulsion if she does not fufill requirements contained in a remediation plan intended to get her to change her beliefs.

Ms. Keeton's lawsuit accuses the university of being "ideologically heavy-handed" in imposing the requirements on her "simply because she has communicated both inside and outside the classroom that she holds to Christian ethical convictions on matters of human sexuality and gender identity." It argues that her views, which hold that homosexual behavior is immoral and that homosexuality is a chosen lifestyle, would not interfere with her ability to provide competent counseling to gay men and lesbians.

An Augusta State spokeswoman, Kathy D. Schofe, declined on Thursday to comment on the litigation, saying that the university had not yet been served with the lawsuit and officials there would need time to devise a response.

Ms. Keeton is being represented by lawyers affiliated with the Alliance Defense Fund, a coalition of Christian lawyers. The group has brought a similar lawsuit on behalf of an Eastern Michigan University graduate student who alleges she was dismissed from a counseling program for her beliefs about homosexuality. In 2006 the group extracted major concessions from Missouri State University in settling a lawsuit filed by a former social-work student who refused to respect a class project's requirement that she sign a letter to the state legislature in support of homosexual adoption.

In a news release announcing the lawsuit against Augusta State, David French, senior counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, said: "A public-university student shouldn't be threatened with expulsion for being Christian and refusing to publicly renounce her faith, but that's exactly what's happening here. Simply put, the university is imposing thought reform."

The lawsuit says Ms. Keeton has stated in classroom discussions and written assignments that she believes sexual behavior "is the result of accountable personal choice," that people are born male or female, and that homosexuality is a lifestyle and not a "state of being." It says faculty members at Augusta State confronted her about her beliefs based on such statements and on a student's claim that Ms. Keeton has advocated "conversion therapy" for homosexuals in conversations with her peers—an allegation that Ms. Keeton denies.

The lawsuit says Augusta State faculty members developed a remediation plan specifically for Ms. Keeton and told her she would be expelled from the College of Education's counselor-education program if she did not fulfill its requirements. The plan calls on Ms. Keeton to attend workshops on serving diverse populations, read articles on counseling gay, lesbian, and bisexual and transgendered people, and write reports to an adviser summarizing what she has learned. It also instructs her to work to increase her exposure to, and interaction with, gay populations, and suggests that she attend the local gay-pride parade. Ms. Keeton has refused to comply.