Far From Settled 

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Ever since she filed suit in early 2000 alleging that the University of Utah had violated her religious freedom by requiring her to recite “religiously offensive” language in a drama class, the case of Christina Axson-Flynn always has been something of a lumbering, puzzling, but still humorous albatross.

Even now, with the case settled last week, it has to be admitted that the issues surrounding her now legendary objections bring precious little to the overall discussion of religious beliefs vs. academic freedom. Let people talk all they want about a “deck clearing” before the arrival of the U’s new, and very LDS, President Michael K. Young. The fact remains that few people drew the same conclusions regarding Axson-Flynn’s case. When they did, those conclusions unfortunately fell along Utah’s timeworn tradition of religious lines.

Was this a clear-cut case of religious discrimination? Settlement language suggests evidence that the U had made certain concessions for other students of certain religious persuasions while failing to do the same for Axson-Flynn. But just as she withdrew voluntarily from the U for fear that instructors would force her hand, Axson-Flynn also rejected any starring role in litigation. Her teary announcement last week was about all the drama we got. Instead, it was her attorney, James W. McConkie, who took center stage throughout. He bellowed long and hard about how the Axson-Flynn case exposed an overall pattern of anti-Mormon activity at the U. In 2001, he boasted that he knew where to look, too: specifically, in the school’s history department, English department, and medical and nursing schools. McConkie railed against the university’s former president, Bernie Machen.

Then, early that same year, he and law partner Brad Parker sent a two-page letter to 42 state legislators, asking them to think long and hard about funding a public university that might force a nice, young Mormon woman to take the Lord’s name in vain. Now, according to The Salt Lake Tribune, McConkie no longer believes the U was the big, bad bastion of anti-Mormon activity he once characterized it as. Huh?

Was this a debate about the nature of art? Axson-Flynn’s instructors insisted they never reviled her religion, only that they stressed fidelity to the playwright’s script. Other LDS drama students at the U drew clear distinctions between profanity recited as imitative dialogue and profanity from the heart. Surely God knows the difference. “To lay this whole issue at the foot of religious resistance to dramatic material is just a little too easy,” the U’s theater department chairman said at the time.

That would be the most definitive statement on this whole mess, if not for the fact that Axson-Flynn has now turned the tables on the state’s largest institution of higher learning. In times past, thanks to Galileo and Darwin, it was religion that struggled to accommodate the world of learning and science. Reading the Axson-Flynn settlement we find that it’s now the secular university that must accommodate religion. Even the settlement language pits forces against each other in advance. Compared to the “deeply held and sincere religious convictions” of students, it’s professors who exhibit “bias” or “discrimination.” Of course, to view the situation from the other way around would be blasphemous. God forbid that secular people have deeply held convictions equal to those of the religious.

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