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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, December 23, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 51
Religion no excuse for discrimination, court says
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Religion no excuse for discrimination, court says

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

A federal court ruled on December 16 that religion may not be used as a reason to discriminate against LGBT clients in a professional setting.

In Keeton v. Anderson-Wiley, a panel of the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals held that a public university graduate program can require its students to follow the American Counseling Association's (ACA) code of ethics, including its prohibition on discrimination, before allowing those students to work with clients.

The court rejected Jennifer Keeton's claims that her rights to religious freedom and free speech under the U.S. Constitution barred Augusta State University from enforcing the code of ethics in her case.

In its decision upholding a prior federal district court ruling, the 11th Circuit said that the university is not a public forum, and therefore, university officials 'may impose restrictions on speech that are reasonable and viewpoint-neutral.'

'The crucial or ultimate fact that will determine Keeton's viewpoint discrimination claim, then, is ASU's motivation' for imposing the additional coursework,' the 11th Circuit said in its written decision.

In this case, the court said, it could not find any evidence that the university imposed the additional coursework 'because of [Keeton's] views on homosexuality.'

'Rather, as the district court found, the evidence shows that the [additional coursework] was imposed because she expressed an intent to impose her personal religious views on her clients, in violation of [the counseling professional code of ethics] and that the objective of the [additional coursework] was to teach her how to effectively counsel GLBTQ clients in accordance with [the code of ethics].'

Keeton was enrolled as a graduate student in a counseling program at Augusta State University in Georgia.

She repeatedly told her faculty supervisors 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 OK to be Gay.'

University officials perceived her to be deficient in the 'ability to be a multiculturally competent counselor, particularly with regard to working with Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer/Questioning (GLBTQ) populations.' The school would not allow Keeton to proceed with her required experience in one-on-one counseling until she completed remedial coursework on LGBT issues.

The university also threatened to expel her from the program unless she indicated she would be able to counsel students without imposing her religious views on them.

Although she initially agreed to do the remedial coursework, Keeton ultimately sued the university, claiming that it was violating her First Amendment rights to freedom of religion and speech.

The court rejected Keeton's argument, saying that people who choose to enter a profession are bound by the profession's standards of conduct and ethics.

'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 court said.

'Every profession has its own ethical codes and dictates. When someone voluntarily chooses to enter a profession, he or she must comply with its rules and ethical requirements. Lawyers must present legal arguments on behalf of their clients, notwithstanding their personal views. Judges must apply the law, even when they disagree with it. So too counselors must refrain from imposing their moral and religious values on their clients.'

Augusta State University 'has a legitimate pedagogical concern in teaching its students to comply with' the ACA Code of Ethics, the 11th Circuit said.

The ACLU and Lambda Legal filed briefs supporting the university, and both organizations expressed satisfaction with the court's decision.

'As this decision makes clear, while we're all entitled to our own religious beliefs, schools like ASU can mandate that counseling students adhere to professional standards and not use their religion to discriminate against students who come to them for help,' the ACLU said in a statement after the 11th Circuit announced its ruling.

'This is especially important for LGBT students in crisis, who may have already faced rejection and judgment from their community, and who may not have any other trusted adult to talk to.'

'Augusta State University had legitimate concerns to require Ms. Keeton to complete a remediation program after expressing her desire to subject LGBTQ youth to dangerous conversion therapy,' said Greg Nevins, supervising attorney in Lambda's Atlanta office.

'If a counselor cannot respect the dignity and promote the welfare of her LGBTQ clients and uphold the American Counseling Association Code of Ethics, she is not a competent counselor.'

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