The University of Utah's Independent Student Voice

The Daily Utah Chronicle

The University of Utah's Independent Student Voice

The Daily Utah Chronicle

The University of Utah's Independent Student Voice

The Daily Utah Chronicle

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Losing its religion

A panel created in the wake of a federal lawsuit to craft a university policy on openness to students of faith is losing its religion, as members say the committee will expand its review beyond religious openness to accommodation of all differences.

The U agreed to The Religious Accommodation Policy Committee as part of a settlement of a civil lawsuit involving former U student Christina Axson-Flynn, who accused faculty members in the U’s Actor Training Program of violating her religious convictions by forcing her to swear in a play or drop out of the program.

Their work could alter how curriculum across the U will be presented.

On Thursday, 10 faculty members voiced concern about their mission and opted to take a more expansive view of their mission, changing their title and broadening their focus.

“We’re considering all accommodations together because we can’t take religion as a separate case, the decision [in the Axson-Flynn case] seems to forbid it,” said Katharine Coles, nonvoting chairperson of the committee. “It’s not that we’re downplaying religion at all. We’re doing what the court told us to do, which is considering accommodations as a whole.”

John Morris, U general counsel and legal adviser to the committee, said if accommodations are made for anything, then they must be made for religion as well.

“Categorically, you couldn’t say we’ll permit medical, but not religious, accommodations,” he said.

The committee ran the idea of the name change past Axson-Flynn’s attorney as a courtesy and they accepted the alteration, Coles said.

In attempt to represent a diversity of views, the Axson-Flynn settlement, which called for the establishment of the committee, required then-Interim President Lorris Betz to appoint three faculty members, three students and one at-large community member to serve. All three viewpoints were discussed at Thursday’s meeting, but aside from two of the three students serving on the panel, no students were in attendance.

“As educators, our highest value should be teaching the knowledge that is consistent with the field,” said Greg Clark, associate professor of bioengineering. “We’re charged with developing curriculum to help students acquire knowledge and practice in their fields.”

Erin Arnold, a student committee member from the College of Law, said the comments from attending faculty members help the process.

“It’s important to collect information about what the faculty wants to see addressed,” she said. “We’ve already discussed most of the concerns we heard today, but it’s good to know those are shared by the faculty at-large.”

Ensuring academic freedom for the faculty while protecting the students’ individual rights to be secular or religious is a “tough assignment,” said Steve Nebeker, the community’s representative on the committee.

While Nebeker is the sole community member on the committee, he said he plans to represent both religious and secular views.

“I’m in the process of sending out letters to community leaders to sample the general feeling,” Nebeker said. “We want professors to be able to teach and not be controlled, but we also want them to respect and not ignore the students’ rights.”

U representatives, including Morris and David Dynak, chairperson of the theater department, said there was no fault on the part of the faculty and added that Axson-Flynn’s factual claim was false.

The case was settled to save time and money as well as to assure positive results from the suit, Morris said.

Clark saw the move to settle as a sign of weakness and said, “The U has bent over backward and has shown they don’t have the courage to stand up.”

Committee members said they hope to hear issues from the faculty and students regarding how to safeguard the U against future occurrences in next week’s meeting, on Sept. 21 at 4 p.m. in the Union Collegiate Room.

Members invite all representations at the U to attend and ensure their needs are addressed.

Alex Lowe, committee member and president of the Associated Students of the University of Utah, voiced his view of students’ sentiments in the absence of that demographic at Thursday’s meeting.

“Students see these meetings as an opportunity to create consistency and gather information,” he said.

Coles said she was disappointed that no students attended the meeting.

“I’m concerned that not every student understands it’s not only faculty freedoms at stake here,” she said.

Morris said the panel hopes to have a document drafted and through the Board of Trustees by the end of the academic year, but the committee is currently in the information gathering stages, having only met twice thus far.

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