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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Policy approval ends six-year legal battle

After more than six years of legal battles with a former student, in 2005 the university ended the struggle by approving a one-of-a-kind policy that now allows students exemptions from coursework that interferes with their deeply held beliefs.

Think back for a moment-way back-to the 1998-1999 school year.

It was a time when Bernie Machen sat in the office at the north end of the Park Building. Rick Majerus and the Runnin’ Utes were regrouping after a 9-point loss to the Kentucky Wildcats in the national championship game. Few knew the name Urban Meyer as Ron McBride’s football team went 7-4, earning its members a bid to go home and spend time with their families for Winter Break.

But it was also a year in which one U student began a six-year process that would leave the university better suited to stand up against legal concerns regarding class curricula.

Christina Axson-Flynn, then a student in the U’s Actor Training Program, refused to swear while acting. The student claimed she was told to learn to comply or withdraw from the program-a choice she said went against her deeply held religious beliefs and violated her First Amendment rights to free speech and free exercise of religion.

In July 2004, after a lengthy legal battle in several courts, the student and the university finally settled the case.

In the settlement agreement, the university committed to develop a policy to safeguard itself against future confusion-a policy that would maintain a touchy balance between sensitivity to students’ deeply held beliefs and professors’ academic freedom to set their coursework.

And that’s where 2005 entered the picture-as a year that saw three consecutive months of Academic Senate debate, during which various administrators, professors and students hashed out the details of the Accommodation Policy.

The vigorous discussion and multiple changes to the wording came after a panel pieced together a rough draft of what they thought the policy should include.

Before moving the draft on to the Academic Senate, the Religious Accommodation Committee broadened the focus of the policy by dropping the word “religion” from its title, noting that it would apply to much more than simply religion, even if that was the culprit that originally sparked the debate.

In the September 2004 committee meeting, the U’s General Counsel John Morris said, “Categorically, you couldn’t say we’ll permit medical, but not religious, accommodations.”

The long seven-month process of committee and Academic Senate work was followed by a brief morning of final approval by the Board of Trustees.

The policy provides professors with the choice of denying all requests for accommodations or considering all accommodations. In the event a professor allows one student a coursework exemption, he or she must then give the same consideration to all other students who file formal requests.

The Academic Senate reserves the right to revisit the policy, and, before passing the policy on to the Board of Trustees, said it would likely do so within the next couple years.

While the U, like other schools, already had in place a policy that allowed students special accommodations for attendance conflicts due to religious or school-oriented activities, this curriculum-based policy was the first of its kind.

However, many who helped form the policy said they doubted any accommodation would be filed and that the entire process was simply a formality to protect the U against future occurrences.

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