A graduate school counseling student took her fight with Augusta State University to the federal appeals court in Atlanta on Tuesday, claiming that her First Amendment rights were violated when professors sought to punish her for her biblical views on gay rights.
Jennifer Keeton's attorney told the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that the school sought to punish her for arguing that sexual behavior is a choice, and threatened to expel her unless she attended events like Augusta's gay pride parade.
"She was told, 'You don't have to believe it. You just have to say you do,'" said Keeton's attorney, Jeff Shafer.
Augusta State University countered that the counseling program would risk its accreditation if it didn't hold Keeton to a code of ethics. The school has a duty to require students to counsel all segments of the community, including those who are gay or transgender, it said in court papers.
Keeton told other students that she was interested in practicing conversion therapy - where a therapist tries to "cure" a person from being homosexual - after graduation, said Cristina Correia with the state Attorney General's office. Correia said Keeton also told her professors she would tell any clients who said they were gay that homosexuality is morally wrong.
University faculty were concerned that Keeton was scheduled to practice counseling in middle and high schools as part of her degree program and could possibly harm young students with her views, Correia said.
"The university has a responsibility when putting students in a practicum and graduating them," Correia said. "When you have that kind of evidence, the faculty could not, under their ethical standards, put that student in a clinical setting without further remediation."
Keeton, who said she's a devout Christian "committed to the truth of the Bible," enrolled in the school's counselor education program in fall 2009 and soon began discussing her views that sexual behavior is a personal choice and that gender identity isn't subject to change.
Faculty members were alarmed after she wrote in a term paper that it would be hard with her to work with gay clients. The school told her that her language was unethical according to guidelines from the American Counseling Association, and she was put on probation and warned she could be expelled.
She was asked in May 2010 to agree to a remediation plan that would require her to attend sensitivity training, read counseling journals and mix with gays at events like the city's gay pride parade.
Keeton refused to comply with the plan, which she said in court papers would require her to "tell clients wanting to hear it that homosexual sex is moral."
She filed a federal lawsuit claiming the school wanted to expel her because she "holds Christian ethical convictions" on human sexuality and gender identity. A judge rejected her challenge, leading to Tuesday's court arguments.
Attorneys for both sides declined comment after the hearing because the case is under a gag order by the court.
The case has drawn national attention from religious groups and gay rights advocates.
Keeton's lawsuit was brought by the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian advocacy group that that presses faith-based cases in court nationwide. It argues that the First Amendment protects Keeton's rights to share her beliefs about gays with others.
The American Civil Liberties Union and Lambda Legal, the national gay rights law firm, took the opposing side. They argued that counselors shouldn't discriminate based on sexual orientation and should avoid imposing their values on clients.