Vol. 3, No. 2
to other articles
in this issue:
From the Editor: Disestablishing
Two Cheers for the Pilgrimage
What Really Happened in Uganda?
Go Down, Elian
A Religious Right Arrives in Canada
Feeble Opinions On the House Chaplaincy
A Cardinal in Full
Peanuts for Christ
in the Real World
Ever since Eve bit into the forbidden apple, attractive young women have been
challenging the powers that be. And ever since Eves story made its way into the
Bible, reporters have been finding such stories compelling, especially if they involve
religion and/or sex. Consider two late-breaking cases in point, both involving coeds whose
Mormon identities have put them at odds with their respective Utah institutions of higher
The first takes place at the states premier public university, the University of
Utah. Although Latter-day Saints make up almost two-thirds of the student body, the campus
environment resembles that of most large public colleges and universities, which means
that "the U" is secular enough to be perceived by some as antagonistic to
religion. And if youre perched in the Wasatch foothills above Salt Lake City, being
perceived as secular means being perceived as anti-Mormon.
On January 9, Salt Lake Tribune reporters Brooke Adams and Peggy Fletcher Stack
reminded their readers of that reputation in a big front-page article headlined
"Mormon Issue Remains a Touchy One at the U." Stack told me that the story was
motivated by reports that the non-Mormon university president had been trying to determine
whether there was any truth to popular claims that Latter-day Saint scholars are
discriminated against in hiring and promotion and that bias against the LDS students in
the university is not hard to detect. The president denied being concerned about the
claims, but what Adams and Stack wrote suggests that he shouldnt be so sanguine.
Interviews with over 40 current or former faculty and staff led the reporters to conclude
that the universitys anti-Mormon reputation is by no means entirely unfounded.
The considerable buzz the story created added to the newsworthiness of a suit filed
four days later in federal court by Christina Axsom-Flynn, a sometime student in the
universitys actor training program who charged that certain faculty members had
failed to make reasonable accommodation for her religion. She said that when she
auditioned for the program she had warned the committee that she would not be comfortable
"taking the Lords name in vain" and "saying the F word." She
said that since she had been admitted, she assumed that her reservations would be
respected. They were not.
Early on, she was asked to perform scenes in a class in which the character she was
playing swore and used scatological language. Although she was permitted to eliminate the
offensive language on that occasion, she claimed she was subsequently counseled to leave
the program unless, in future dramatic performances, she could perform the roles exactly
as written. After Axsom-Flynn dropped out of the program (and the university) she sued,
alleging that her civil rights had been violated. Asking the court in effect to treat her
religion as a disability that needs to be accommodated, she is seeking a public apology
and unspecified money damages.
The suit received headlines in Utah, and made its way onto NPRs Weekend Edition
as well. Weekend Edition correspondent Beverly Amsler quoted Axson-Flynns attorney
as saying that the case had been filed a week after publication of the Tribune
article "in order to capitalize on the publicity." Without acknowledging its
connection to the supposed anti-Mormon reputation of "the U," university
spokesman Fred Esplin said the case was being taken "very seriously." He also
noted that such matters are rarely resolved quickly.
The second case revolves around Julie Stoffer, a business major at Brigham Young
University whose summer has been marked by her appearance on MTVs "Real
World." The long-running show, which this season pictures the real-life goings-on of
seven young strangers sharing a big house in New Orleans, has shown the comely coed going
to an LDS church and talking enthusiastically about being Mormon. But she is also filmed
sleeping in the same room as male cast members. At Brigham Young, known variously as
"the Y" and "the Lords university," these sleeping arrangements
could turn out to be a problem for the young woman from Delafield, Wisconsin.
The atmosphere at Brigham Young University is decidedly Mormon, if not overtly pious
and parochial. All enrolled students are expected to conform to requirements spelled out
in the Honor Code of the LDS Church Educational System, which begins by stating that in
their daily living both on and off campus, students, faculty, and staff are expected to
demonstrate "those moral virtues encompassed in the gospel of Jesus Christ." The
code also specifies acceptable dress and grooming standards and sets forth housing
guidelines, making clear that members of the opposite sex may not even visit in the
bedrooms of off-campus housing.
As the BYU honor code covers behavior off-campus as well as on, this could well mean
that when the taping for the show was being done last winter, Stoffer violated the honor
code in a very public and, thus, particularly egregious fashion. Whether she will be
allowed to return to BYU has become a matter of fairly intense media speculation not only
in Utah but on entertainment pages across the land.
In an article for the New York Post, Don Kaplan said that the "Real
World" performer was "on the verge of getting tossed out" of BYU, but
thats a bit premature. I checked with BYUs Cari Jenkins, Assistant to the
President for Public Affairs, who pointed out that honor code violations are handled on a
case-by-case basis. The university authorities charged with handling such matters, she
said, "will sit down and talk with Julie." Only then will a decision be made.
It is possible that Julie will decide to pursue an acting career in the less
restrictive environment of a school in southern Californiaand the honor code review
will disappear. If she tries to return to BYU, however, the national attention will be a
nice publicity windfall for "Real World" no matter how the review turns out.
The stories of Christina and Julie might well be about any young women who, without
quite realizing what they are getting into, mount challenges to institutional authority,
secular or religious. But from the time it was revealed to Joseph Smith that a man can
take more than one wife, the news mediaand Americans generallyhave been
fascinated with stories about women and Mormonism.
The LDS Church may have established itself as a normal and customary feature of the
American religious landscape, in part by carefully and consistently distancing itself from
"Mormons" who practice polygamy. But the legacy of the Churchs
"peculiar institution" of plural marriage endures.