Religious credit causes controversy at ISU

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    By CHRIS ONSTOTT

    A lawsuit challenging Idaho State University’s policy of offering university credit for religious offered is continuing through the efforts of 10 Idaho residents and numerous anonymous donors.

    The lawsuit, which originally protested a land-swap between ISU and the LDS church, was allowed to continue on the issue of the for-credit institute classes after of the the land-swap issue was thrown out of court.

    Carole Wells, a local board member of the American Civil Liberties Union, who became a full-time student after filing the lawsuit, leads the suit claiming that college credit for institute classes violates separation of church and state.

    “I feel that since we do have a first amendment that calls for separation of church and state, we need to be very careful about the oversight that they exert over a program like that,” Wells said.

    Wells enrolled in two courses offered by the LDS institute of religion courses last year–one for college credit and one for institute credit. She said she was concerned about the academic content of the classes.

    “It was just assumed that everybody in the class was LDS,” Wells said. “Every class started with a prayer. It was essentially a devotional experience.”

    The court challenge is the first filed against the university program that, beginning in 1929, offered up to eight elective credits through various institutes of religion.

    General counsel for ISU, Kelley Wiltbank, said credit offered through religious institutions is permissible under the constitution.

    “We have recognized that there is a sufficient educational component in what is being taught that we are offering university credit. It’s no different than offering credit for an internship or military studies operated outside of a university,” Wiltbank said “The mere fact that it’s a religious program shouldn’t change things.”

    Wiltbank and LDS Institute director at ISU Roger Porter both expressed concern that Wells enrolled in the institute classes only after filing the lawsuit.

    “She was only there to take notes to try to entrap the instructor to use it against the church in court,” Porter said. According to Porter, this was the reason Wells was denied entrance into an institute class she tried to take at the start of this year.

    Wells said that she took the classes after the suit was filed because she had only became aware of the classes when the suit was filed.

    “Had I known that these classes were being offered for credit, I would have taken a class to see whether they were devotional classes or classes of some academic content,” Wells said.

    According to Porter, 11 of the 55 classes the LDS institute offers are available for ISU credit.

    Wells said her purpose in filing the lawsuit is to dismantle the religious studies program at ISU.

    “The reason ISU does not have a legitimate religious studies program headed by the University, is because the LDS church is handing them this gift (off-campus religious program for credit),” Wells said. “If the LDS church doesn’t teach these classes on campus, the university might consider having a religion studies program that has oversight by ISU.”

    Porter questions why the LDS church institute classes are the only ones named in the suit.

    “They have not examined, participated in, or even found relevant the classes offered by other faiths,” Porter said. “All they are doing is attacking the Mormon classes.”

    Wells said the legal costs for the 10 filing the lawsuit are being paid by anonymous donors and is directed solely at the LDS church because of budget constraints, but they hope to eliminate all off-campus for credit religious programs.

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