Georgia Grad Student Sues University Over Gay Sensitivity Training

Jennifer Keeton Says She Was Told to Change Her Christian Beliefs or Be Dropped From the Program


July 27, 2010—

A Georgia student studying counseling says her university went too far in requiring her to change her Christian beliefs on homosexuality before she's allowed to graduate.

Backed by the Alliance Defense Fund, Jennifer Keeton has filed suit against Augusta State University after, she said, school officials threatened to dismiss her from its counseling program when she refused to participate in a "remediation" plan to increase her tolerance of gays and lesbians after she made it known that she believed homosexuality was a personal choice.

According to the lawsuit, filed earlier this month in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia, school officials told Keeton that she was failing to conform to professional standards because of her views on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues.

Click here to read Jennifer Keeton's complaint against August State University.

"Jen has voiced disagreement in several class discussions and in written assignments with the gay and lesbian 'lifestyle,'" read the university's remediation plan, as quoted in the lawsuit. "She stated in one paper that she believes GLBTQ 'lifestyles' to be identity confusion."

"Faculty have also received unsolicited reports from another student that [Miss Keeton] has relayed her interest in conversion therapy for GLBTQ populations," the lawsuit's quotation of the plan continued, "and she has tried to convince other students to support and believe her views."

The remediation plan, according to court documents, included attending three workshops on diversity, a monthly two-page reflection on what she has learned from research into LGBT counseling issues, and increased exposure to gay populations. The latter action came with the suggestion that she attend Augusta's gay pride parade.

A second portion of the remediation plan includes more work to improve Keeton's writing skills.

David French, senior counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund and also director of its Center for Academic Freedom, told that the lawsuit on Keeton's behalf is one of about a half-dozen similiar cases involving counseling or social work students in the last few years.

"It's an emerging issue, without question," he said. Requiring a student to change his or her beliefs to graduate is "punishment of free speech."

"That is not the role of the state and it is not within the power of the state," he said.

Augusta State University declined to make school officials available for comment, and did not immediately provide a statement.

Georgia Graduate Student Believes Homosexuality is a 'Personal Choice'

The Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund has advised Keeton not to speak publicly about her education at Augusta State or the pending lawsuit, but she stood up for her beliefs in a video produced and distributed by the Fund.

"While I want to stay in the school counseling program, I know that I can't honestly complete the remediation plan knowing that I would have to alter my beliefs," she said. "I'm not willing to and I know I can't change my Biblical views."

According to the lawsuit, Keeton had said both in class and in writing assignments that "she believes sexual behavior is the result of accountable personal choice."

"Further, she has expressed her view that homosexuality is a 'lifestyle,' not a 'state of being,'" the lawsuit read.

"In certain personal conversations away from the classroom with friends and colleagues, Miss Keeton has shared her Christian faith, and commended its virtues and benefits," the lawsuit said. "In the course of such discussions, she has also communicated Christian viewpoints on matters related to sexual ethics."

According to the lawsuit, which included several e-mails between Keeton and faculty, school officials said that they weren't trying to change her views or religious beliefs, but that it was "unethical" for her to apply her own personal viewpoints to other people "and not truly accepting that others can have different beliefs and values that are equally valid as your own."

W. Mark Hamilton, executive director of the American Mental Health Counselors Association, said he couldn't speak to the specific lawsuit against Augusta State University, but that's it's not unreasonable that a student be requested to take additional diversity training.

While the AMCA has not officially taken a stance on LGBT issues -- "We have members on both sides of the issue," Hamilton explained -- they do expect their members to try to work with clients regardless of their sexual orientation.

"Most certainly our members would take a positive understanding position," he said. "I don't think that most members or counselors would reject this client out of hand because of their beliefs. Of course there's always that option to terminate their relationship."

But French said the decision to require a remediation plan came before school officials ever saw Keeton interact with a client.

"There no evidence she's mistreated anybody," he said. "It is not part of the program to single out a Christian woman because of her religious beliefs."