Keeton Defense Contradicts NAS Principles

As I noted
previously, a three-judge panel of 11th Circuit made a troubling decision in
the Jennifer Keeton case. But it did so not because it declined to reinstate
Keeton, a Counseling student who said that she would recommend “conversion
therapy” for prospective teenage clients who were gay and lesbian. As the
decision noted, Keeton demanded “preferential,
not equal, treatment,”
seeking to ignore the field’s ethical guidelines
of counselors putting their clients’ interests ahead of their own personal or religious
beliefs. The decision was troubling
because its findings could, and likely will, be used by colleges and
universities in the circuit to stifle legitimate student freedoms on campus.

Thursday’s e-mail brought news that the
National Association of Scholars (NAS) has issued a statement criticizing the
decision in much broader terms. The organization’s president, Peter Wood, expressed concerns that the
ruling “sets underway a process of excluding Christians and others of similar
moral belief from the counseling profession – the protections of the First
Amendment notwithstanding.”

This response is unfortunate in two
respects. First, claiming that the decision would result in “excluding
Christians . . . from the counseling profession” mischaracterized the panel’s
findings. The panel held that a Counseling program (a program designed to train
students for a specific vocation) could embrace corrective measures when
dealing with a student who: (a) prioritized her religiously-based beliefs over
the evidence-based conclusions of the relevant professional agency (in this
case, the American Psychological Association);
and, more important, (b) promised to subordinate her clients’ interests to her
own religious agenda, even if evidence existed that such behavior might harm
her clients.

Contrary to the NAS statement, those
findings would not have the effect of excluding the 78 percent of Americans
who are “Christians” from the counseling profession. According to a July 2011 poll from
Greenberg/Quinlan, only 24 percent of Americans believe that conversion therapy
works. I’ve seen no polling that addresses part (b) of the ruling (whether
people who endorse conversion therapy would impose their beliefs on gay and
lesbian clients, despite the counseling profession’s ethical guidelines), but
clearly not all conversion-therapy advocates would do so. Even if the 11th
circuit ruling is interpreted in the most stringent manner possible, then, its
provisions would apply not to all or even most Christians, but to a small
minority (perhaps 10 percent?) of the group.

Wild rhetorical exaggerations often appear
in statements from defenders of the academic status quo, such as the AAC&U.
But I expect more from the NAS. (Full disclosure: I’m a member of the executive
committee of CUNY’s branch of NAS.)

Second, the NAS has distinguished itself
for its consistent, often passionate, defenses of equal treatment of all on
campus. The organization usually opposes identity politics-based special
preferences, and for good reason–such preferences (whether in admissions or in
personnel matters) generally undermine academic quality.

The NAS statement on the Keeton case,
however, appears to reflect a different viewpoint. In an unusually-worded
passage defending Keeton’s right to recommend clients for conversion therapy,
Wood accuses the court of overlooking how “the affirmation of divergent lifestyle
options is itself an ethical choice.” The NAS statement cites no evidence that
conversion therapy, which is opposed by every major medical and psychological
organization and was further weakened by a brutal 2011 CNN investigation,
works; or that the therapy doesn’t threaten to harm clients, as some studies have suggested.

If a Counseling program has any purpose,
it would seem, it would be making sure that people who favor treatments that
might bring their clients harm don’t enter the profession. Surely the NAS
wouldn’t affirm that an Education M.A. program would have to certify a Black
Muslim student who wanted to teach Ebonics based on his sincerely-held
religious beliefs. Yet an evidence-free approach in a Counseling program is
acceptable for conservative Christian students?

Impenetrable academic jargon (such as, in
this case, “the affirmation of divergent lifestyle options”) often masks the
weakness of the overall argument in statements coming from defenders of the
academic status quo, such as the AAC&U. But I expect more from the NAS.


  • KC Johnson

    KC Johnson is a history professor at Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center. He is the author, along with Stuart Taylor, of The Campus Rape Frenzy: The Attack on Due Process at America's Universities.

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