Augusta State University officials said it's not a graduate student's religious beliefs, but her refusal to work toward being able to counsel homosexual clients that is threatening her standing in the school's counseling program, according to court documents filed Monday.
The filing states that Jennifer Keeton must demonstrate her ability to counsel all clients, including the homosexual and transgender population, in order to graduate.
The response is the school's first legal answer since Keeton filed a lawsuit July 21 alleging that she was facing expulsion from the counseling program based on her religious beliefs and her refusal to complete "a thought-reform remediation plan."
In an e-mail cited in the suit, ASU assistant professor Dr. Paulette Schenck told Keeton "the faculty did not expect (her) to change (her) personal beliefs and values."
"(T)he unethical part (was) applying your own personal beliefs and values on other people and not truly accepting that others can have different beliefs and values that are equally valid as your own."
Keeton is a graduate student in ASU's K-12 school counseling program, which requires students to adhere to a neutral code of ethics.
The university's response explains that ASU professors asked Keeton to complete a remediation plan after she wrote in a term paper regarding the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender, or GLBT, community that "it would be hard (for her) to work with this population."
Keeton also told fellow student Justin C. Earnest that she would tell gay clients "their behavior is morally wrong and then help the client change that behavior," according to an affidavit by Earnest included in the school's filing.
The remediation plan required Keeton to attend counseling workshops, read counseling journals regarding the GLBT community, increase her exposure to the gay population and write reflections on what she was learning.
The university's legal filings did not directly address Keeton's contention that she was told to attend a gay pride parade as part of the remediation plan.
Members of ASU's faculty also were concerned with Keeton's support of conversion therapy for homosexuals, which the American Counseling Association's ethics committee has concluded "may harm clients."
In her lawsuit, Keeton said the remediation plan "subjects her to aggressive ideological instruction" and asks that she "change her beliefs."
Keeton said she would like to continue her education in the counseling program without fear that the school "will punish her for her religious views" and her "unwillingness to change or abandon those views."
But university officials said if they exempted Keeton from counseling homosexual clients, they would also have to exempt those opposed to war from counseling soldiers.
"The same curriculum would require an atheist student counselor to competently counsel a deeply religious client," the filing said. "A staunch feminist student counselor is required to competently counsel clients from male dominated cultures ... the common thread being that all counselors are required to keep separate their own belief system from the counseling relationship."
The suit also points to a U.S. District Court judge's recent opinion in a similar case, Ward v. Wilbanks.
In the July 2010 ruling, a judge upheld Eastern Michigan University's decision to dismiss a student who refused to counsel a homosexual student or participate in a remediation plan.
University officials said that if the court moves forward with Keeton's case it could affect the school's accreditation and other students' degrees.