Can a college student invoke his or her religious beliefs to avoid engaging in an objectionable type of artistic expression?

Suppose a student is taking a drawing class. Part of it involves sketching a nude human body. If a student has a religious objection to observing or drawing unclothed models, he or she might ask to be exempted from that section of the class without damage to the course grade. Such an exemption may or may not be granted.

It stands to reason, under a doctrine established by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 1943 decision West Virginia v. Barnette, that no one may be compelled by a government actor to do something that will violate their conscience. Accordingly, it would seem that the same could be said for students who find religious or moral objections to certain practices normally required in a course of study — that they should be allowed to take on comparable tasks, modified to meet the requirements of their worldview.

A Mormon drama student at the University of Utah recently objected to “taking the Lord’s name in vain” and using “the f-word.” When she asked that she be allowed to change the words in class exercises and plays to which she was assigned, she was informed that her grade would suffer if she did so. In the resulting court case, the federal district court found that she could not exempt herself from the requirements of her studies and that if she desired to avoid those requirements, she had the option of choosing another major. The case has been appealed.

Category: Freedom of Speech