A lot of attention is being given to two recent legal cases regarding Christian counseling students who are being censored because of their views on homosexuality. Last week a federal court upheld Eastern Michigan University’s expulsion of Julea Ward, a graduate student, due to her belief that homosexuality is immoral.
And down in Georgia, school officials at Augusta State University have informed counseling graduate student Jennifer Keeton that she must complete a remediation program to change her views about homosexuality or else she will be dismissed. Keeton has decided to sue ASU.
Now a few observations. Notice that the issue in both cases is the students’ beliefs about homosexuality, not their conduct. This is, as one of the attorneys in the Ward case said, “scary stuff,” and I would add that it is just the sort of thing that John Stuart Mill warned us about in his classic On Liberty. The State has no business controlling or attempting to control people’s consciences. And to shut down freedom of opinion on such a crucial issue as sexual immorality is especially frightening.
The district court judge, George Steeh, declared that the university was justified in “requiring students to counsel clients without imposing their personal values.” And EMU is not imposing its values on Ward by insisting that she change her views? Clearly there are values at stake in this case, but it is not just Ward’s personal, or Christian, values. EMU’s values, specifically that homosexuality is morally appropriate, are involved too. To insinuate that EMU is value neutral here is ethically naïve or, worse, disingenuous. The truth is that EMU, Augusta State, and no doubt most other state universities, have an ethically dogmatic position on the homosexuality issue, no less dogmatic than that of Ward, Keeton, and other conservative Christians.
Also, consider the irony that the EMU and ASU officials aim to change these students’ beliefs when it is also presumably the view of these university officials that homosexuals cannot change. The notion that homosexual orientation is somehow fixed and immutable is, after all, the most popular argument in defense of its moral legitimacy. The irony here is that between the two, beliefs and conduct, the latter is far more susceptible to voluntary change. In fact, many philosophers would argue that one’s beliefs are not at all under one’s control. (Try changing your belief about even a trivial matter, and you’ll see this is so. And even the prospect of long-term intentional change of one’s beliefs is a controversial matter.) But one’s sexual conduct is under one’s control. The decision to have sex is a choice (except in cases of rape, of course, but that’s beside the point). Human beings have free will, and that applies in the sexual sphere as well as anywhere else. To deny this and insist that those with homosexual attraction (even if it is innate, though there is little evidence to suggest it is) “cannot help themselves” is to affirm hard determinism, a radical and morally deadly view in itself.
Yet, despite these problems, moral permissivism about homosexuality is becoming a dogma in our culture, including the academy and the legal sphere. This is bad news—not just for religious freedom in America but for the state of our public discourse.