Judge tosses suit similar to ASU case

Homosexuality, personal beliefs arose in Michigan student case
Augusta State University graduate student Jennifer Keeton has filed a lawsuit against the university.

A federal judge dismissed a case this week with striking similarities to one filed by an Augusta State University student who claims discrimination because of her biblical beliefs.

The Augusta case was filed last Wednesday by graduate student Jennifer Keeton, 24, who contends her professors want her to a undergo a remediation plan because of her Christian convictions.

Specifically, Keeton has expressed her views both during and outside class that gays, lesbians and transgender people suffer "identity confusion."

In a similar incident last year, an Eastern Michigan University student working toward her master's degree was criticized by her professors for her opinions on homosexuality, according to the Alliance Defense Fund, a faith-based coalition of lawyers.

The student, Julea Ward, came under scrutiny during practicum sessions when she referred a potential client to another counselor. Ward said she could not go against her values and affirm the client's same-sex relationship, said attorney David French, who represents both Ward and Keeton.

Ward was taken before a panel of her professors who challenged her beliefs within the master's program, French said.

In a 48-page decision Monday, U.S. District Judge George Caram Steeh dismissed Ward's lawsuit, saying essentially that Ward was treated poorly but not censored.

"The university had a rational basis for requiring its students to counsel clients without imposing their personal values," Steeh wrote in his opinion. "In the case of Ms. Ward, the university determined that she would never change her behavior and would consistently refuse to counsel clients on matters with which she was personally opposed due to her religious beliefs -- including homosexual relationships."

French said there are similarities between the two cases, but also significant differences. The dismissal of the Ward case, which will be appealed, does not set a precedent nor doom the success of the lawsuit in Augusta, the attorney said.

Mike Brown, a discrimination and employment lawyer in Augusta, agreed with that assessment.

"These could be very different cases," Brown said.

As in the past, ASU refused to comment directly on pending litigation. Spokeswoman Kathy Schofe instead released a general statement Tuesday outlining the University System of Georgia's policy on students' beliefs.

It states in part: "No student is asked to change their religious beliefs or views in order to participate in any program."

Further questions were referred to the state attorney general's office.

The Ward case at Eastern Michigan University started shortly after she enrolled in the counseling program. Her professors openly mocked her beliefs and called her a "homophobe" when she expressed her view that homosexuality is wrong, according to the Alliance Defense Fund.

The tension peaked when Ward was preparing for a practice counseling session and noticed in the folder that the client needed affirmation of a homosexual relationship. Ward knew she could not provide that support so she followed the advice of her professors and classroom teaching and referred the client to another counselor, according to the fund.

This so-called value-based conflict is common in counseling, similar to a conflict of interest for an attorney. French, the attorney, said it's better for both people in the session because the client gets a sympathetic ear.

French said the Augusta case is different because Keeton has not even reached that level of the program. He said Keeton's professors worked up a remediation plan because of Keeton's comments both in and outside class about homosexuality.

"There's a presumption about how she will treat clients," French said.

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