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Jen Keeton

Augusta State University graduate student Jen Keeton alleges school officials demand she be re-educated in morality, giving her the choice of giving up her Christian beliefs on homosexuality or being expelled from the school’s counseling program.

But now, after months of battling the university in court, a pair of free-speech organizations have joined her in the fight.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the National Association of Scholars have filed a friend-of-the-court brief with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, asserting it a violation of the First Amendment for the Georgia university’s officials to require Keeton’s beliefs be “influenced” by remedial sensitivity training or face expulsion.

According to a complaint filed against the school earlier this year, school officials demanded Keeton, 24, go through a “remediation” program after she asserted homosexuality is a behavioral choice, not a “state of being” as a professor said.

Specifically, the remediation program was to include “sensitivity training” on homosexual issues, additional outside study on literature promoting homosexuality and the plan that she attend a “gay pride parade” and report on it.

Where has higher education in America gone? Find out in “Freefall of the American University”

“Besides violating Keeton’s own First Amendment rights,” writes University of California Los Angeles law professor Eugene Volokh in the brief, “the university’s retaliation also sent a powerful message to other students: If you express views like Keeton’s, prepare to suffer the same consequences – prepare to incur many hours of extra obligations, and to put yourself at risk of expulsion.”

Keeton’s original lawsuit, filed by attorneys working with the Alliance Defense Fund, asserted the school cannot violate the Constitution by demanding that a person’s beliefs be changed.

University “faculty have promised to expel Miss Keeton from the graduate Counselor Education program, not because of poor academic showing or demonstrated deficiencies in clinical performance, but 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,” the law firm explained.

Keeton’s own e-mail response to the faculty members who allegedly were pressuring her to adopt a pro-homosexual belief system defines the dispute.

“At times you said that I must alter my beliefs because they are unethical. … Other times you said that I can keep my beliefs so long as they are only personal and I don’t believe that anyone else should believe like me. But that is just another way of saying that I must alter my beliefs, because my beliefs are about absolute truth. … In order to finish the counseling program you are requiring me to alter my objective beliefs and also to commit now that if I ever may have a client who wants me to affirm their decision to have an abortion or engage in gay, lesbian or transgender behavior, I will do that. I can’t alter my biblical beliefs, and I will not affirm the morality of those behaviors in a counseling situation,” she wrote.

According to court documents, Keeton faces the “remediation” requirement because she supposedly (1) “voiced disagreement in several class discussions and in written assignments with the gay and lesbian ‘lifestyle,’” (2) “stated in one paper that she believes GLBTQ ‘lifestyles’ to be identity confusion,” (3) “relayed [to another student] her interest in conversion therapy for GLBTQ populations” and (4) “tried to convince other students to support and believe her views.”

School authorities cited the American Counseling Association’s code of ethics and said students would be required to adopt its provisions to obtain a degree in counseling.

Faculty members, therefore, had demanded Keeton “attend at least three workshops … which emphasize … diversity training sensitive toward working with GLBTQ populations.” They also wanted her to “develop” her knowledge of homosexuality by reading 10 articles and increasing her exposure to homosexuals and lesbians by attending “the Gay Pride Parade.”

“Simply put, the university is imposing thought reform,” said ADF Senior Counsel David French. “Abandoning one’s own religious beliefs should not be a precondition at a public university for obtaining a degree. This type of leftist zero-tolerance policy is in place at far too many universities, and it must stop. Jennifer’s only crime was to have the beliefs that she does.”

He added that a public university student “shouldn’t be threatened with expulsion for being a Christian and refusing to publicly renounce her faith, but that’s exactly what’s happening here.”

Keeton’s original request for an injunction preventing Augusta State from expelling her over refusal to comply with the remediation program was denied in August by U.S. District Judge J. Randal Hall.

“[T]his is not a case pitting Christianity against homosexuality,” Hall wrote in his opinion. “Matters of educational policy should be left to educators, and it is not the proper role of federal judges to second guess an educator’s professional judgment.”

He added, “Whether I would have imposed the remediation plan, or what I would have included in the plan itself, is not the question, for the Supreme Court instructs that educators, not federal judges, are the ones that choose among pedagogical approaches.”

The FIRE and NAS friend-of-the-court brief explains, however, “A university does have great latitude in deciding what all of its students in a particular program or course must learn. But it does not have such latitude in imposing special curricular burdens on students who express certain views, whether anti-homosexuality, anti-war, pro-gun rights, anti-religious, or whatever else.”

The brief concludes, “Unless the district court’s decision is reversed, it threatens to become a road map for other public universities that want to restrict a wide range of speech (not at all limited to anti-homosexuality speech) by a wide range of students (not at all limited to counseling students).”

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