Summarized by Kent Larsen
Mormon Actress Is Suing U.
Salt Lake Tribune 14Jan00 D2
By Brooke Adams and Peggy Fletcher Stack: Salt Lake Tribune
SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH -- LDS actress Christina Axson-Flynn is suing the
University of Utah for religious discrimination, claiming she was pushed
out of the University's Actor Training Program because she refused to
use offensive language. According to documents she filed Thursday in
federal court, Axson-Flynn made it clear in her audition for the program
that she would not use profanity written into parts she might be asked
to perform, and the University still accepted her into the program.
The University's theater department disagrees with details of the
lawsuit, according to University spokesman Fred Esplin, "The facts have
yet to be determined through the judicial process. If it's determined
there has been discrimination, we'll deal with it directly and
aggressively. If not, the allegations will have been deemed to be
Axson-Flynn auditioned for the program in March 1998 and was asked at
that time if she would be uncomfortable performing in any situations.
She claims she said she would not feel comfortable "taking the Lord's
name in vain" and "saying the 'F' word." When she was admitted to the
program, she assumed that the Theater Department would accommodate her
As roles with offensive language in them arose, Axson-Flynn says she
omitted the inappropriate language or found substitutes. An adjunct
professor, Barbara Smith, soon told her to 'get over' her inhibition and
that she could still use profanity and "still be a good Mormon." She was
told that she wouldn't get credit for the assignment if she didn't
perform the scene as written. Smith later changed her mind and allowed
Axson-Flynn to omit the offensive language and still get credit.
But in December 1998, in a review session with some faculty members,
Axson-Flynn was told she would no longer be accommodated. She was told
that she had until the end of the academic year to comply or leave the
program. She complained to the department chairman, professor Xan
Johnson, but she says Johnson never took any action. Johnson told the
Salt Lake Tribune he had no recollection of the incident.
When she later told associate professor Sandy Shotwell, according to the
court documents, that she would withdraw from the program rather than
use profanity, Shotwell required her to publicly explain her decision to
her classmates. She says she told her classmates, "she could live with
herself if she never became a great actress, but she could not live with
herself if she violated her integrity." She later dropped out of the
Her attorney, James McConkie, says that the decision to leave was very
difficult, "It was very difficult because she loves acting and . . . she
went to a state university to develop these skills. The climate was such
she was drummed out of the program because they would not allow her to
live by her religious beliefs."
In the lawsuit filed Thursday, Axon-Smith names as defendants, in
addition to the University, Johnson; Shotwell; Smith; Sarah
Shippobotham, a visiting associate professor; and Jerry Gardner, an
assistant professor. The University's theater program has faced problems
with profanity in the past, also. The LDS Church threatened to withdraw
a $15,000 grant from the University's Pioneer Memorial Theatre in 1994
because of profanity in productions.
McConkie, who has handled other high-profile civil rights cases in Utah,
says that the case involves a basic violation of Axon-Flynn's civil
rights. "A state agency doesn't have the right to try and force a person
to not live their religion," McConkie said. He also says that the
lawsuit could lead to a better climate at the University of Utah. He
hopes the lawsuit will "eliminate the discrimination that takes place at
the school and ultimately create a better climate between Mormons and
non-Mormons at the university."