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OPINION

Can colleges demand students affirm homosexuality? Court to decide

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ATLANTA (BP) -- The U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals has heard arguments in a religious liberty case that could determine whether a college has the right to require students to profess certain beliefs about homosexuality in order to get a degree.
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Augusta State University, in east Georgia, put counseling student Jennifer Keeton on academic probation in 2010 after she acknowledged in private conversations and during class that she disagreed with homosexuality. School administrators claimed Keeton said it would be hard for her to counsel gay clients, a stance they said violated ethical standards for licensed counselors, as put forth by the American Counseling Association.

Faculty members also faulted Keeton for saying she wanted to work with conversion therapy -- which aims to help clients stop living a homosexual lifestyle -- after graduation. And the faculty feared Keeton might harm middle and high school students she was scheduled to work with as part of her degree plan, said Cristina Correia, the state attorney who argued the school's case.

"The university has a responsibility when putting students in a practicum and graduating them," Correia told the court during oral arguments Nov. 29 in Atlanta. "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."

After putting her on probation, school administrators required Keeton to complete a remediation plan that included going to gay pride events, attending sensitivity training and writing monthly reflection papers. Keeton declined to participate in the plan, and the Alliance Defense Fund filed suit on her behalf in July 2010.

In a brief filed before the hearing, ADF attorney Jeff Shafer denied Keeton ever had a problem maintaining ethical standards for counselors, which include withholding value judgments from clients. The school's only concern has been with Keeton's expressed belief, not her behavior, Shafer wrote.

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"It was Miss Keeton's communication of her religion-founded beliefs on sexual ethics which the faculty reported as the justification for their imposing remediation in the first place, and which they condemned as problematic and in need of alteration," he wrote.

Shafer claims Keeton's First Amendment rights were violated because the school targeted her for her expressed viewpoints. He compared the school's attempt to alter Keeton's beliefs in order to remain in the counseling program to a business school that required students to affirm capitalism or disavow socialism in order to graduate.

Attorneys for both sides declined comment after the hearing because the case is under a gag order by the court.

Leigh Jones writes for World News Service, where this story first appeared.

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