The University of Utah has settled a lawsuit alleging anti-Mormon bias, agreeing to allow students to withdraw from some academic activities because of their religious beliefs.
The lawsuit was brought four years ago by Christina Axson-Flynn, 24, who left the theater department after claiming she feared retaliation from professors for refusing to recite lines that contained the F-word or took “the Lord’s name in vain.”
Under the settlement, the university will write and implement a religious accommodation policy for all departments that will formalize the process of opting out of exercises because of religious beliefs. A professor, dean and university vice president ultimately can approve or reject a student’s request.
University officials said they have dealt similarly, but informally, with student religious concerns in the past. The lawsuit will solidify the complaint process and keep everything on the books.
Axson-Flynn also will be reimbursed for $3,000 to $4,000 in tuition expenses and allowed to return to the school, though she said she would attend college somewhere else.
University of Utah attorney John Morris said the process wouldn’t infringe on faculty members’ freedoms.
“We know that this dispute has been difficult for everyone involved, and we’re very pleased that it’s now settled,” he said Wednesday.
The university has maintained that it made efforts to accommodate Axson-Flynn, including allowing her to change the text of an in-class exercise. The settlement does not acknowledge wrongdoing by either party.
At a news conference Wednesday, Morris and Axson-Flynn’s attorney, James McConkie, said the sides continued to disagree on the circumstances surrounding Axson-Flynn’s exit, but both felt the settlement was a positive change for the future.
Axson-Flynn called it “a victory for everyone, because not one side wins. It accomplishes everything I set out to do when I started this whole process.”
Axson-Flynn, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, claimed the university violated her freedoms of speech and religion and she feared retaliation from professors for not reciting lines that offended her.
The ruling comes a day before further legal action in the case was scheduled. A lower court ruling was reversed in February by the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which remanded the case to trial.
U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell dismissed Axson-Flynn’s lawsuit in 2001, saying the offending words were part of a drama curriculum that did not take a position on religion and required the use of profane language only as an academic exercise.
Axson-Flynn’s lawyer James McConkie said the two sides had been working on the settlement for about two months.
Axson-Flynn said she still wanted to pursue acting, and didn’t think she would have trouble in the industry because of her beliefs. She said both her mother, a stage actress, and her father, who has acted in films, have been able to make it.
“I wouldn’t have a hard time at all making a career in acting holding to morals, no matter what those morals were,” she said.
July 14, 2004
Travis Reed, Associated Press Writer