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Back to October Ed Reporter

Education Reporter
NUMBER 297 THE NEWSPAPER OF EDUCATION RIGHTS OCTOBER 2010

Courts Uphold Expulsion of Counseling
Students Who Won't 'Affirm' Homosexuality
Two recent court rulings upheld the dismissal of Christian students from counseling programs because of their moral objections to homosexuality. Students Julea Ward in Michigan and Jennifer Keeton in Georgia were both expelled from master's in counseling programs after expressing their unwillingness to affirm homosexual behavior when counseling clients.
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Julea Ward was admitted to Eastern Michigan University's (EMU) graduate level counseling program in 2006, with the goal of becoming a high school counselor. EMU's program is similar to many master's in counseling programs in that it includes both classes and a practicum component of counseling clients. Ward earned excellent grades despite her professors "disagreeable" reactions to her Christian viewpoints, including her conviction that homosexuality is morally wrong.

The dispute that led to the lawsuit arose in 2009, shortly after she began the practicum component of the program and discovered that she had been assigned a client who sought counsel regarding a homosexual relationship in prior sessions. Recognizing that she had a potential conscience issue and that she could not affirm the client's relationship without violating her Christian convictions, Ward asked her supervisor how to handle the matter. The supervisor advised Ward to reassign the client to another student, an action that set off disciplinary hearings.

EMU officials informed Ward she could remain in the program only if she submitted to a "remediation" program she characterized as designed to help her "see the error of her ways" and change her "belief system" as it related to counseling homosexual clients. At a subsequent review hearing, EMU faculty asked Ward numerous inappropriate questions and denigrated her Christian beliefs, ultimately dismissing her from the program.

"This is about behaviors that are appropriate or not appropriate within counseling," Irene Ametrano, professor of counseling at EMU, told USA Today. Furthermore, she asserted, the university's policies were consistent with the ethics code of the American Counseling Association (ACA), and the school could not keep its accreditation if it ignored the code.

Federal Judge George Steeh agreed, rejecting the argument that the school infringed upon Ward's religious freedom and free speech rights. He ruled that the university had a legitimate "curricular goal of teaching students to counsel without imposing their personal values on their clients." He also affirmed the university's right to govern students according to the standards of the ACA Code of Ethics, noting that students will be governed by that association as practicing counselors. (The ACA is committed to affirming homosexual behaviors as normal and natural, even to clients who express a desire to change their sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual; counseling.org/pressroom/newsreleases, 5-22-06).

Even if EMU has, as Judge Steeh claims, a "rational basis" for incorporating the ACA Code of Ethics into its counseling program, the Code leaves some room for interpretation. While the Code states that counselors may not discriminate based on "gender, gender identity, [or] sexual orientation," in a manner "that has a negative impact on those persons," it does not expressly forbid referring these clients to other counselors. Notably, the Code does explicitly condone referring persons who "wish to explore their end-of-life options" if the counselor has "personal, moral, [or] competence" issues and does not wish to work with the client (Section A.9.b). Apparently, the ACA considers conflicting moral principles regarding end-of-life issues as acceptable, while conflicting moral principles about gender and sexual behavior are intolerable.

Ward's attorney, David French of the Alliance Defense Fund, said the court upheld "an extremely broad and vague university speech code" to a degree "that's never been done in federal court" in order to reach its decision. He said the ruling was part of a "disturbing trend" of courts' "excessive deference to university administrators" that permitted politically correct speech codes under the guise of "curricular requirements" assumed to be neutral on their face.

Another ADF lawyer, Jeremy Tedesco, said the Ward ruling could result in more Christian students being expelled from public universities across the country. "It's a very dangerous precedent. The ruling doesn't say that explicitly, but that's what is going to happen."

Less than one month later, federal Judge J. Randall Hall refused to grant an injunction that would have blocked Augusta State University (ASU) from expelling Jennifer Keeton. Keeton had enrolled in the master's program in counseling in 2009 with plans to become a school counselor. The university's adoption of the ACA ethics code as part of their counseling program was again a crucial component of the judge's decision.

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Keeton came under fire from professors and some students after stating her politically incorrect beliefs about gender and sexual relations in class discussions and written assignments. Her offenses, according to Judge Hall's ruling, include statements that she "opposes homosexuality, based on the Bible's teachings," that she believes "homosexuality is a 'lifestyle,' not a 'state of being,'" and that she affirms gender as "fixed in each person at the time of creation, and not a social construct or individual choice subject to alteration." The 24-year-old also confided to a fellow student that, if given the opportunity, she would counsel young gays to pursue "conversion" therapy to change their sexual orientation. A statement released by her Alliance Defense Fund attorneys stated that Keeton "never denigrated anyone in communicating her beliefs but merely stated factually what they were in appropriate contexts."

The program administrators at ASU ordered Keeton to comply with all elements of a "remediation" plan or be expelled from the Counselor Education Program. Remediation requirements included attending three "diversity sensitivity" workshops, reading approved materials on counseling GBLT persons, and "increasing exposure to and interaction with gay populations" through such activities as attending the local Gay Pride Parade. She would also have to write monthly "reflection" papers about how these assignments were influencing her beliefs so that faculty could decide "the appropriateness of her continuing in the counseling program."

Keeton initially tried to comply with the requirements, but determined that she could not "honestly complete the remediation plan knowing that I would have to alter my beliefs. I'm not willing to, and I know I can't change my biblical views." Judge Hall insisted that the issue was not one of religious belief, but that Keeton "exhibited an inability to counsel in a professionally ethical manner. in violation of the ACA Code of Ethics, which is part of the ASU counseling program's curriculum."

Alliance Defense Fund senior counsel David French disagrees. "Jennifer Keeton has not been accused of mistreating a client. She's being told, 'You must change your beliefs or we'll deny you a degree.'" French cautioned that insisting students conform to the currently prevailing ideology "is an emerging trend in education, social work and counseling. Schools are trying to ensure that [students] graduate with a particular worldview." (USA Today, 7-28-10; insidehighered.com, 8-23-10; Augusta Chronicle, 7-22-10; foxnews.com, 7-28-10)


 
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