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Appeals Court Upholds University’s Right  to Enforce Counseling Standards

The U.S. Court of Appeals on Dec. 16 rejected the claim of Jennifer Keeton, a former Augusta State University (ASU) student, that the program violated her First Amendment rights. Keeton had been seeking a master’s degree in school counseling from ASU. After she had completed the first year of the program, ASU officials in the Counselor Education Program required her to complete a remediation program before taking the clinical practicum, in which students counsel actual clients. 

After initially agreeing to the remediation program, Keeton changed her mind and instead sued ASU faculty members, claiming that requiring her to complete the remediation plan violated her First Amendment “free speech and free exercise rights.” Since she failed to complete the remediation plan, ASU expelled her from the counseling program.

At issue is the university’s right to enforce counseling standards even when they conflict with a student’s religious beliefs. According to the 
Court of Appeals opinion, Keeton is a self-described Christian whose faith informs her view that “the GLBTQ (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer) population suffers from identity confusion, and that she intended to attempt to convert students from being homosexual to heterosexual. …

“Further, in answering a hypothetical posed by a faculty member, Keeton responded 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.”

The university argued that since the state requires students to graduate from a program accredited by the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP) to be eligible to become a Licensed Professional Counselor, the university is required to teach students to follow the American Counseling Association’s Code of Ethics.

Because Keeton’s views, if applied in a counseling setting, would violate several sections of the Code of Ethics (including those regarding discrimination based on gender orientation, the diversity of clients, and the imposition of the counselor’s values on clients), the university imposed the remediation plan to improve her “ability to be a multiculturally competent counselor, particularly with regard to working with [GLBTQ] populations.”

Free Speech Claims
The court found that ASU officials did not impose the remediation plan because of Keeton’s personal religious views on homosexuality, which would be unconstitutional, but instead imposed the remediation plan because she expressed an intent to impose her personal religious views on her clients, in violation of the ACA Code of Ethics. 

The court also found that “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.”

“… we find that ASU has a legitimate pedagogical concern in teaching its students to comply with the ACA Code of Ethics. … Keeton does not have a constitutional right to disregard the limits ASU has established for its clinical practicum and set her own standards for counseling clients in the clinical practicum.”

The court observed that, “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.”

Free Exercise of Religion Claims
“We conclude that ASU’s curricular requirement that students comply with the ACA Code of Ethics, from which the remediation plan follows, is neutral and generally applicable,” the Court states in its opinion.

“… the requirement applies equally to all students in the program. It is ASU’s general practice to craft remediation plans that target a student’s particular curricular weakness, as it did here. In seeking to evade the curricular requirement that she not impose her moral values on clients, Keeton is looking for preferential, not equal, treatment.”

Click here for more information. Also, click here for information about the lawsuit of Julea Ward, a former Eastern Michigan University (EMU) graduate counseling student. Ward claims EMU discriminated against her by expelling her from the counseling program because of her religious beliefs. Ward believes homosexual behavior is wrong and was unwilling to counsel homosexual clients about their relationships. 

Ward has appealed the July 2010 ruling, in which the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan upheld the university’s right to establish the curricular requirements of its counseling program, which adheres to ACA’s Code of Ethics and the ethical standards of the American School Counselor Association. Oral arguments in the appeal were heard on Oct. 4.


AMHCA’s Journal Gets a New Look!

AMHCA’s quarterly, peer-reviewed journal has a new cover design after many years. The facelift gives the Journal of Mental Health Counseling a brighter, more up-to-date look. Say goodbye to the old, dark-blue colored cover, and say hello to the new cover look, left. 


Mental Health Issues Are Among Those in “I Am Essential” Campaign

Patient advocate groups representing those who live with chronic disease and disability have joined to form an “I am Essential” campaign to ensure that every American has access to high-quality, comprehensive, and affordable health care as the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) considers its recommendations for the nation’s Essential Health Benefits package. 

A diverse set of patient organizations comprise the group, which includes Mental Health America (MHA) and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). 

The Essential Health Benefits package being developed by HHS will include a list of services that every private health plan sold through the exchanges and state Medicaid plan must include for those who are newly eligible under the health reform law.

“Our organizations serve many of the most vulnerable patient groups in the United States,” according to the letter the patient groups sent to HHS in December. “A benefit package too narrowly drawn runs the risk of not adequately covering patient needs. Access to affordable, 
high-quality health care saves lives and lowers health care expenditures in the long run.”

See The Aids Institute press release
or the full text of the letter.

AMHCA’s Leadership Directory Is Online

For a listing of the mental health counselors and committees that do the volunteer work at AMHCA in support of the profession of mental health counseling, check out or download the 2011–2012 Leadership Directory. You’ll find contact information for the 11-member board; the approximately 40 AMHCA members who serve on AMHCA’s eight committees; and the board of the AMHCA Foundation.

Plus you’ll find the association’s liaisons to CACREP (The Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs) and AASCB (the American Association of State Counseling Boards) and the editors of the Journal of Mental Health Counseling and The Advocate.

The directory also includes the chairs and executive directors of AMHCA’s numerous state chapters, many of which have websites. Click here to find your state chapter’s website.