Will Jennifer Keeton Win 11th Circuit Free Speech Rights Case?

By Robyn Hagan Cain on December 15, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments recently in a First Amendment case involving a Christian counseling student who claims she was unconstitutionally suspended from an Augusta State University (ASU) program for her belief that homosexuality is morally wrong.

The American Civil Liberties Union has described the student, Jennifer Keeton, as the "counseling student who insisted on a right to discriminate against LGBT [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender] clients," while the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), which represents Keeton, says "she was told her Christian beliefs are unethical and incompatible with the prevailing views of the counseling profession." ADF claims that the University violated Keeton's religious and free speech rights.

In her complaint, Keeton says ASU faculty violated her religious freedom rights when it promised to expel her from the graduate Counselor Education program, "not because of poor academic showing or demonstrated deficiencies in clinical performance, but simply because she has communicated ... that she holds to Christian ethical convictions on matters of human sexuality and gender identity."

Though Keeton was offered the option of continuing her studies if she participated in an ideological remediation program, she said the remediation program was contrary to her religious beliefs.

Keeton alleged that ASU personnel violated her free speech rights through "vague and overbroad speech regulations that chill and penalize constitutionally protected student speech."

U.S. district judge Randal Hall ruled last year that ASU's requirement was "academically legitimate," reports Advocate.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments in a similar case in October involving Julea Ward, a counseling graduate student in Michigan. Ward claims that Eastern Michigan University violated her free speech rights by dismissing her from the counseling program after she indicated that her religious beliefs precluded her from counseling a clinical patient about a homosexual relationship.

What do you think? Will the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals find that ASU violated Jennifer Keeton's free speech rights, or do professional conduct standards for counselors trump free speech?

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