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For week ended January 16, 2000 Posted 24 Feb 2001
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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 groundless."

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 desires.

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 university.

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."


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