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Saturday, July 27, 2013

A New Hypo for the "Is Religion Special" Debaters

More than a hypo, actually. In a well-known academic freedom case, Axson-Flynn v. Johnson, an acting student at the University of Utah refused on religious grounds to say the word "fuck" or take the Lord's name in vain during an acting exercise and was criticized by her instructors. She ultimately brought suit. The Tenth Circuit held that Axson-Flynn had raised potential free speech and free exercise claims. After remand to the district court, the case was settled, with the parties announcing "the planned implementation of a policy that will allow students an opportunity to request exemptions from specific curricular exercises they feel go against their 'sincerely held religious beliefs.'"

Now the Chronicle of Higher Education has run a story (subscription may be required) about a music student at Northwestern who refused to sing a verse by Walt Whitman, on the grounds that Whitman made several racist statements toward the end of his life:

As a result, Timothy L. McNair, a 25-year-old aspiring opera singer, failed the course. His stand, taken at the end of the spring quarter, has put at risk his ability to finish his master's degree at Northwestern's Bienen School of Music. 

The university has backed the professor who failed Mr. McNair and says that it expects students to complete the work assigned to them. 

Here we have a nice new example for those who have argued that religion is not special--that there is no compelling reason to treat strongly held non-religious beliefs, when it comes to granting or refusing to grant exemptions, differently from strongly held religious beliefs. Enjoy. 

Posted by Paul Horwitz on July 27, 2013 at 08:52 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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I read the story quickly and thought the student refused to sing a work by SLIM Whitman. Which would be different.

Posted by: Anon | Jul 27, 2013 10:32:43 AM

Well, clearly. If it were Slim Whitman there would be no excuse whatsover for refusing to sing.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Jul 27, 2013 11:40:59 AM

Ah. Ecumenism. Someone against homosexuality can join the lawsuit.

Seriously, it seems fairly easy to make it into a religious belief claim, equality of all for many people having biblical origins.

Posted by: Joe | Jul 27, 2013 12:14:54 PM

The issue isn't whether the belief is "strongly held," but whether it is a demand of conscience, i.e., it is categorical in character and central to identity or a categorical command with which the person strongly identitifies. So understood, it's doubtful that the person objecting to the racist language is acting on conscience.

Posted by: Brian | Jul 27, 2013 1:38:17 PM

I should add I'm skeptical the Utah student was acting on a demand of conscience either, but I would need to know more of the facts to have a firm view.

Posted by: Brian | Jul 27, 2013 1:55:19 PM

It's an imprecise analogy. If the Utah student had refused to sing a verse by someone who had made anti-Mormon remarks (assuming the student is Mormon) that would be closer. If the NW had been asked to sing a racist verse, that would also be closer.

Posted by: lurkinglawprof | Jul 27, 2013 9:29:57 PM

I don't know how much we can conclude about how "unlikely" the student here based his decision on some "demand of conscience" without reading more than is provided by the article. As to the substance, it's looks complicated & to the degree he reflected his times, what is the stopping point here?


Posted by: Joe | Jul 27, 2013 11:55:20 PM

I was hoping for a "religion is special but so are universities" argument.

Posted by: Abe Delnore | Jul 30, 2013 11:14:53 AM

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