Back to News & Commentary

Court Says No to Using Religion to Discriminate

Joshua Block,
Senior Staff Attorney,
Share This Page
December 20, 2011

Last Friday, a federal court of appeals issued an important decision, setting limits on the right to use religion to discriminate. The case concerned Jennifer Keeton, a student enrolled in a graduate school counseling program who told her faculty that “as a high school counselor confronted by a sophomore student in crisis, questioning his sexual orientation, she would tell the student that it was not okay to be gay.” Augusta State University, where Ms. Keeton was enrolled, ultimately expelled her from the program after she indicated she would be unable to counsel without imposing her religious views on her clients.

In the case, Keeton v. Anderson-Wiley, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit held that a public university graduate counseling program can require its students to follow the American Counseling Association’s (“ACA”) code of ethics, including its prohibition on discrimination, before allowing those students to work with clients. The court rejected Ms. Keeton’s claims that her rights to religious freedom and free speech under the United States Constitution barred the university from enforcing the code of ethics in her case.

As the court noted, Keeton “remains free to express disagreement with ASU’s curriculum and the ethical requirements of the ACA, but she cannot block the school’s attempts to ensure that she abides by them if she wishes to participate in the clinical practicum, which involves one-on-one counseling, and graduate from the program.”

The ACLU filed a brief arguing that a student who declares her intent to violate the university’s professional standards through her conduct does not have a constitutional right to a court order requiring the university to let her work with clients.

The court of appeals agreed in language that is instructive:

Just as a medical school would be permitted to bar a student who refused to administer blood transfusions for religious reasons from participating in clinical rotations, so ASU may prohibit Keeton from participating in its clinical practicum if she refuses to administer the treatment it has deemed appropriate. Every profession has its own ethical codes and dictates. When someone voluntarily chooses to enter a profession, he or she must comply with its rules and ethical requirements. Lawyers must present legal arguments on behalf of their clients, notwithstanding their personal views. Judges must apply the law, even when they disagree with it. So too counselors must refrain from imposing their moral and religious values on their clients.

As this decision makes clear, while we’re all entitled to our own religious beliefs, schools like ASU can mandate that counseling students adhere to professional standards and not use their religion to discriminate against students who come to them for help. This is especially important for LGBT students in crisis, who may have already faced rejection and judgment from their community, and who may not have any other trusted adult to talk to.

Learn more about LGBT rights: Subscribe to our newsletter, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

Learn More About the Issues on This Page