A U.S. District Court judge said Wednesday he needed more time to determine whether Augusta State University professors violated a student's free speech by imposing a remediation plan after she expressed concerns with counseling homosexuals.
Judge J. Randal Hall said he normally takes less than 10 minutes to decide whether to pass such a hearing on in the courts, but "this case is so significant that I feel a more thoughtful response from the court is needed."
Jennifer Keeton, who did not appear in court Wednesday, is facing dismissal from ASU's K-12 school counseling program if she does not adhere to the terms of a remediation plan.
She is scheduled to begin a practicum on Monday where she will work in a local middle school, but ASU officials said they won't allow her to participate if she doesn't meet the remediation requirements.
School officials required Keeton to complete the remediation plan after she said inside and outside class that it would be hard for her to work with homosexuals and that she would tell them their behavior is morally wrong.
During five hours of testimony, Keeton's lawyers said the plan violates her First Amendment rights by asking her not to tell clients homosexual behavior is "immoral."
"(Keeton) understands the professional obligation to avoid imposing values," attorney Jeffrey A. Shafer said. "But it's an entire other thing all together for the faculty to require her to validate what she thinks is immoral."
ASU attorneys said the school's remediation plan is not a punishment, but a tool to help Keeton learn how not to impose her beliefs on others, while still maintaining them.
They compared it to a similar plan professors gave a student who had trouble working with black clients. Professors are asking Keeton to read homosexual counseling material, attend workshops and get to know the homosexual community.
"She has a right to her beliefs, but this calls into question her ability to separate those if she were to work with a gay and lesbian client," said Dr. Mary Jane Anderson-Wiley, an ASU professor cited in Keeton's lawsuit against the school.
Anderson-Wiley said in order to graduate from the ASU counseling program, students must adhere to a viewpoint-neutral code of ethics. This includes not telling a client their homosexual behavior is right or wrong.
ASU's attorneys argue Keeton is asking for an exemption from the curriculum by asking to not have to keep a neutral viewpoint while counseling homosexual clients.
"She cannot refuse to learn how to counsel these clients, and that's what she's trying to do," said ASU attorney Cristina Maria Correia.
School officials said granting an exemption to Keeton could cause the school to lose accreditation with the American Counseling Association.
Keeton's attorneys said she believes having to adhere to the school's counseling requirements will cause her irreparable damage.
"Jennifer Keeton believes she has an obligation to God to not participate in other peoples' sin," Shafer said.