Summer 2000, Vol. 3, No. 2

Contents Page,
Vol. 3, No. 2


Quick Links
to other articles
in this issue:
From the Editor: Disestablishing Football

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

Mormon Women in the Real World

by Jan Shipps

Ever since Eve bit into the forbidden apple, attractive young women have been challenging the powers that be. And ever since Eve’s 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 learning.

The first takes place at the state’s 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 you’re 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 shouldn’t be so sanguine. Interviews with over 40 current or former faculty and staff led the reporters to conclude that the university’s 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 university’s 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 Lord’s 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 NPR’s Weekend Edition as well. Weekend Edition correspondent Beverly Amsler quoted Axson-Flynn’s 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 MTV’s "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 Lord’s 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 that’s a bit premature. I checked with BYU’s 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 California—and 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 media—and Americans generally—have 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 Church’s "peculiar institution" of plural marriage endures.