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U. draft addresses students' beliefs

Published December 2, 2004 1:21 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2004, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

If your religion forbids you from handling blood, the University of Utah need not help you earn a degree in nursing. If you don't believe in evolution, you probably should not register for that anthropology class. But if you have an aversion to violence and nudity, you might be able to skip the professor's screening of "Schindler's List."

Those are some of the academic conflicts that the U.'s proposed accommodation policy seeks to address.

On Wednesday, U. officials trotted out a draft of the policy. It stems from July's settlement with a former theater student, who sued the school after she cited religious beliefs for her refusal to utter swear words in classroom performances.

The draft document - outlined in a three-page, single-spaced, legal-styled format - essentially tells students how they can seek accommodations to course requirements and how they can appeal denials of those accommodations.

The proposed policy zeroes in on two types of accommodations: course attendance and course content.

For starters, the attendance section urges students to "register only for those courses in which they have no scheduling conflicts."

It also advises students to tell their instructors early in the course about any religious obligations, university activities or other scheduling demands that might conflict with class attendance or participation. The instructors then could arrange for students to make up or otherwise fulfill course requirements.

The proposed content accommodations are more complex.

First, the draft urges students to take courses that challenge them intellectually and personally. However, the proposal states, the U. recognizes that students' "sincerely held core beliefs" may make it difficult to satisfy some course requirements.

If students determine those demands clash with core beliefs, they should consider dropping the class within the permitted time period. If that can't be done or if the conflict arises later in the course, students can seek an accommodation in writing from the instructor, with a copy going to the department head.

"The university does not have to anticipate every issue a student may have," said Katharine Coles, an English professor who led the U.'s seven-member Accommodation Policy Committee. "It will be up to the student to bring that to the attention of his/her instructor."

However, the proposed policy warns that the U. "assumes no obligation to ensure that all students are able to complete any major." For instance, the school would not allow students who get queasy at the sight of blood to bypass vital skills needed for a medical degree.

Coles now takes the proposed policy on the road. The first stop: Jan. 10 before the Academic Senate, a 102-member body that is 80 percent faculty and 20 percent students.

"I expect those discussions to be serious, lively and very long," Coles said.

The draft probably will undergo some tweaking, she said, before moving to the U. Board of Trustees for final approval.

The undertaking is an outgrowth of a lawsuit filed four years ago by Christina Axson-Flynn, who accused the U.'s theater department of retaliation after she refused to recite lines containing profanity.

In the July settlement of the case, the U. agreed to write and implement a campuswide religious-accommodation policy.

Axson-Flynn's Salt Lake City attorney, Jim McConkie, called the draft document "a step in the right direction." He says it "will help people be more tolerant of all religions at the university."

While praising the U.'s effort, McConkie said he has concerns with some of the language. He points to one entry, which states that "the dean will uphold the denial [of an accommodation] unless he/she finds that the denial was arbitrary and capricious. . . . The dean's decision will be final."

"That doesn't reflect the standard set out in the 10th Circuit Court opinion," said McConkie, adding that U. attorney John Morris has invited him to comment on the document.

Morris concurred, saying U. officials have taken the position that they are "willing to get comments " from McConkie and Axson-Flynn. "But the university has the final decision," he said.

For his part, Morris would not speculate on whether the Axson-Flynn case would have had a different outcome if the U. had had this proposed accommodation policy in place.

There is a "dispute about the facts" of that case, Morris said.

Instead, he points to students who may oppose animal dissection in biology classes. Those students can be accommodated by "virtual dissection" on a computer.

According to Coles, committee members heard more concerns about animal rights than religion.

Larry DeVries, chairman of the Academic Senate, said he has read the draft document and called it a "work in progress." As leader of the U. Senate, he does not have a vote unless there is a tie.

"I do feel [the committee] has come up with a document that protects academic freedom," DeVries said.

U. of U.'s proposed accommodation policy:

Students are responsible for satisfying all academic objectives, requirements and prerequisites as defined by instructors and the U.

l There are two types of accommodations:

Course attendance or scheduling: Students should register only for those courses in which they have no scheduling conflicts that interfere with their ability to complete course requirements.

Course content: Students are obliged to determine, before the last day to drop courses without penalty, when course requirements conflict with their "sincerely held core beliefs." If there is such a conflict, the student should consider dropping the class.

l Accommodation procedure: Students may request, in writing, a content accommodation from the instructor and department head. The instructor is required to respond within two working days.

If instructors believe that the course requirement in question has a reasonable relationship to a legitimate academic goal, they are not required to grant content accommodations. But they may do so after considering the:

- Level of difficulty to administer the accommodation.

- Burden on the student's sincerely held core beliefs.

- Importance of the course requirement in question.

- Availability of reasonable alternatives.

Appeals can be made to the appropriate college dean. The dean's determination is final.

sykes@sltrib.com

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