July 20, 2004

When Should Students Get a Religious Opt-Out?

[UPDATE: My colleague Ron Mallon is quoted extensively in an article about this in the Deseret News.]

My recent or soon-to-be ex-employer, the University of Utah, has

agreed to draft a policy for students whose religious beliefs clash with assignments... [A] seven-member U. committee [is] charged with drafting the policy and an appeals process for students who disagree with a facutly member's decision

This is part of a settlement of a lawsuit by an LDS theater student who refused to swear or utter God's name in assigned monologues. More here and here.

I'm not quite sure how I feel about this--of course much depends on what the committee comes up with. There seem to be some cases in which religious accommodation is clearly called for--according to this article, some professors require Orthodox Jewish students to write "God" rather than "G-d" in their papers. That strikes me as outrageous. On the other hand, I don't think you could have an Art History major who refused to look at images of the female nude, or a Studio Arts major who refused to draw human figures--those are cases where the religious restriction would prevent the student from functioning in the discipline.

Given the modern theatrical corpus, refusing to swear seems like it might be a pretty substantial handicap for a theater student, but perhaps not around here. This article makes it seem as though actors can make a good living in Utah while refusing to curse, because of the heavy local demand for G-rated entertainment. So it makes sense to train an actor who refuses to curse.

I hope and trust that the possibility that a creationist biology major would not have to complete assignments on evolution is this reporter's speculation and not something that will be seriously considered. It would be best if the committee strongly endorsed the centrality of evolution to the teaching of biology.

Also disturbing is the comment here that this is the latest in a series of controversies over anti-Mormon bias at the U. The legislature earlier forced two audits of medical school admissions to investigate whether white Mormon males were discriminated against (the audits found no bias), and two state legislators recently stated that the U. should not "challenge the local culture" or "teach[] something that we don't believe in."* The U. is vulnerable to a certain degree of Mau-Mauing, and the presence of a formal complaint process may have a chilling effect on professors who might consider teaching controversial material.

*There may be more merit to the charge that the U. neglects LDS history, though the opening paragraph of that article seems impossibly naive about the academic hiring process.

Posted by Matt Weiner at July 20, 2004 03:25 AM

Matt writes: "Given the modern theatrical corpus, refusing to swear seems like it might be a pretty substantial handicap for a theater student, but perhaps not around here." I would argue that it's not a "handicap;" it's a reason for doing something else. Ms. Axson-Flynn has made the *correct* choice leaving theater as a career choice (at least the type of theater that upholds the integrity of plays, original screenplays, etc.).

Here's an analogous situation: Suppose a foreman at a construction site gives one of his workers a set of instructions to follow for building a structure. The foreman has been told by the architect only to use these materials. The worker says that he has a *moral* objection to using the types of materials the building requires, so he uses different types of materials than the foreman requires. The materials are not what the architect intended to use on the structure. What results is a building the architect never intended to build. The worker's selfishness has destroyed the integrity of the original plan.

The worker and Ms. Axson-Flynn's actions undermine the author's original intention. The question remains (for the committee to determine) where we draw the line? When does someone's one-minute fantasy destroy another's long-awaited creative masterpiece! Ms. Axson-Flynn's actions are selfish, plain and simple. My recommendation is that she stay at home, give up her career in theater, and hope no writer sues her for copyright infringement.

Posted by: Joe at July 24, 2004 12:14 PM

I wasn't arguing that Axson-Flynn should get to modify the monologues she's reciting, or the plays she performs professionally--only that it's quite possible that she would be able to have something of a career performing works that don't involve swearing. In that case she wouldn't be modifying the authors' original intention.

So the analogy might be like this--some philosophers hate Continental philosophy. If they take a class where Heidegger is assigned, they don't get to opt out of reading Heidegger. But they can go through their careers pretty well (in the US!) never taking a class where they have to read Heidegger.

The question is, should the U. accommodate students like Axson-Flynn by allowing them to major in theater without doing anything that requires swearing? Dunno.

Posted by: Matt Weiner at July 26, 2004 02:10 PM

No, no. I think you misunderstood what I said. I realize that you didn't say anything about revising screenplays for the student's religious perspectives, but the articles you cite clearly do! They are my target, not you. Your comment that it would be a handicap prompted me to discuss it, but it wasn't my target at all.

Next time, I will try to clearly articulate my target.

Posted by: Joe at July 28, 2004 03:30 PM