U. settles case over student's rights on stage
Settling a lawsuit filed by a theater student who refused to curse in class performances, the University of Utah on Wednesday agreed to draft a policy for students whose religious beliefs clash with assignments.
Within the next year, all students and faculty at the U. will have guidelines for when and how exceptions for religious beliefs might be allowed.
So can future theater students choose not to swear? Will a creationist biology major be forced to complete assignments on evolution? Should religious college athletes be required to play in Sunday games?
Those are issues for a seven-member U. committee charged with drafting the policy and an appeals process for students who disagree with a faculty member's decision. The members will be appointed within a month.
"This gives us the flexibility to develop a policy that works for us," said U. attorney John Morris.
The settlement was hailed by both sides as a "win-win" decision for the state's flagship university and Christina Axson-Flynn, whose federal lawsuit claimed the school violated her constitutional freedom of speech and religion rights as a student in the U.'s Actor Training Program in 1998-1999.
A member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Axson-Flynn thanked God, her attorneys and her family Wednesday as she fought back tears.
'Everything I was fighting for has been addressed in the settlement," said Axson-Flynn, 24, at a news conference held at the U. "This ends a chapter in my life, but it begins an important chapter for the university."
Axson-Flynn declined an invitation to return to the U., saying her life has since "taken a different path." She plans to earn a degree, but for now is busy caring for her 13-month-old daughter and acting.
The school must reimburse her for about $3,000 in tuition expenses and also pay her lawyers nearly $250,000 in attorney fees.
The settlement marks an end to a contentious lawsuit and one of the latest controversies about alleged anti-Mormon sentiment at the U., which has been raised in faculty hiring and medical student selection.
Salt Lake City attorney Jim McConkie, who represented Axson-Flynn, earlier this year suggested making the lawsuit a class action after receiving complaints from other students who said they were denied accommodations for their religion.
But on Wednesday, McConkie said he never believed religious discrimination at the U. was widespread. McConkie called the settlement a "great beginning" that will neither change the U.'s curriculum nor tamper with academic freedom.
Morris said academic leaders were consulted about the settlement decision and that "support was strong and unanimous." But he dismissed claims the settlement was a deck-clearing move before the arrival of new U. President Michael K. Young, an attorney and an expert in human rights and religious freedom issues.
Young was briefed on all litigation involving the U. a few weeks ago, Morris said. But, "we didn't ask him for advice and he didn't offer any."
Professor Larry DeVries, who leads the Academic Senate - a group of faculty and student representatives who keep tabs on academic policy issues - signed off on the settlement. He says it is overdue and applauds having polices and procedures that can protect both faculty and students.
A majority of Senate members voted in support of the settlement. "We understood it would not cost the university too much," he said.
Yet some, like Melinda Krahenbuhl, who teaches nuclear engineering courses, are still uncomfortable with any restrictions placed along the road of academic freedom.
"I always respect students' rights to practice their religions," she said. "But that's not the purpose of a university. A university is a place where views are challenged."
Ted Hollist, a junior accounting student, said he felt the lawsuit should never have been brought. "It was a big waste of time and money," he said.
Axson-Flynn first filed suit against five theater department members in January 2000, claiming professors treated her unfairly when she asked not to take the Lord's name in vain or curse as part of performing scripted monologues in class.
During her first semester at the school she dropped some words from an assigned monologue she found offensive. One month later, a professor initially refused to let her change the wording for another in-class performance, but later relented.
In her review session at the end of the semester, Axson-Flynn said she was told she would have to modify her values by the end of the year or drop out of the program. The school has said Axson-Flynn was never asked to leave or given an ultimatum - just warned not to change text in copyrighted plays.
It is illegal to change a playwright's words without written permission in public, for-profit performances.
U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell dismissed the lawsuit before it could get to trial in 2001. The case went up on appeal to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, which revived the lawsuit earlier this year.
The appellate court judges said schools can regulate speech as long as their reasons for doing so relate to legitimate educational concerns. But schools must prove they apply their restrictions in a neutral and consistent way to all students.
Axson-Flynn's lawsuit claimed just the opposite, alleging an anti-Mormon bias at the U.
After leaving the U., Axson-Flynn took classes in Utah Valley State College's theater program and taught at Children's Theatre of Salt Lake City. Now married, she recently did a voice-over for the movie 'The Best Two Years.'