For my good friends at the Georgia Family Council, I wrote a post on a recent decision by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Jennifer Keeton’s suit against faculty and administrators in the graduate counseling program at Augusta State University. I won’t repeat what I said in that post, in which I came to the conclusion that the appellate panel was probably right to turn down Miss Keeton’s appeal.
But there is a larger context that deserves some consideration. Miss Keeton disapproves of homosexuality on religious and moral grounds; whatever may have been the case in the original brouhaha she occasioned, the counseling program came around to the position that her apparent desire to act on these views in her counseling practicum—where she would be acting under the supervision of (in effect, on behalf of) the university in a public school setting—required that she submit to a remediation plan. Rather than submitting to the plan, Miss Keeton withdrew from the program and filed a lawsuit.
Just to be clear: the question is not whether she’s entitled to hold her opinions or even to voice them in the classroom—she is—but whether she can act on them in a public university/public school setting. The American Counseling Association, which accredits Augusta State’s program, says that she can’t. The counseling profession, as represented by the ACA, requires that its practitioners not be judgmental in this way.
There are a number of interesting and important issues here. One is whether the counseling profession can find some way of accommodating “conscientious objectors.” We have found or are working toward accommodations in other professions—medicine and pharmacy come to mind here. Are analogous accommodations not available to counselors?
Another issue has to do with the relationship between “science” (represented in this case by the ACA) and faith-based morality. The working assumption of the profession seems to be that there’s a distinction between questions of fact (which can be settled scientifically) and questions of value, which are personal and must be bracketed in the counseling relationship. Is not this separation itself a “moral” position? Are questions of fact and value so easily separated? To me it seems self-evident that the profession is taking a moral position (one that is contestable, to be sure) and a factual position (regarding the relationship between “facts” and “values”) that is also contestable. The authority of “science” is not neutral. (In raising this possibility, I’m not suggesting anything about the validity or invalidity of the “conversion therapy” that Miss Keeton seems to favor. If faith and morality and facts are intimately intertwined, then we can’t insulate moral positions from inquiries into their efficacity in the world; efficacy may not be the dispositive consideration, but surely we have to take it into account.)
Finally, there’s this: as matters stand, there seems to be no room for faithful witness in the counseling profession. To the degree that, say, the accreditation of schools depends upon the presence of properly credentialed counselors on the staff, does this not, in effect, amount to an impetus toward the “secularization” of the school? I recognize that a person could succeed academically in a program without simply adopting its “worldview”; I’m fairly confident that, on occasion, my students tell me what they think I want to hear without believing a word of it themselves. But does not the “professionalization” of religious education under these circumstances not at least run the risk of “secularization,” as both the state and the marketplace push schools to conform themselves to “the world?”
All of these pressures toward conformity have to be resisted, even if the courts are not always the proper arenas in which to conduct this resistance.