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Religion classes for credit? ISU faces suit

An Idaho civil libertarian and Idaho State University student is spearheading a court challenge against the school giving college credit for church-sponsored religion classes.

"They're teaching Sunday school for credit!" says 36-year-old Carole Wells, a sociology major and mother of four.Her gripe is that ISU offers credit for off-campus religion classes, which typically are not taught by ISU faculty.

Wells enrolled last winter in a two-credit course called Courtship and Marriage at ISU's LDS Institute, a Mormon-operated teaching institution adjacent to the university.

As a non-Mormon and an atheist, she says she was surprised when the class started with prayer. She was further shocked when she saw the textbook: Achieving a Celestial Marriage.

Now, she is going to court.

She believes the class is a flagrant violation of the constitutionally mandated separation of church and state.

ISU has since stopped offering credit for that particular class, but several other courses offered by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint's institute continue to help students earn degrees.

Catholics and Protestants also offer courses credited by the school.

Wells insists she and her co-plaintiffs aren't aiming only at Mormons - they hope to do away with all of ISU's off-campus, for-credit religion programs.

But the LDS Church, which is predominant on campus as well as in the surrounding community, has the biggest presence. Some 65 percent of ISU student claims some affiliation with the church.

Indeed, more than 2,000 students take LDS Institute classes each term, and about 300 receive credit from ISU. Only about 60 ISU students take for-credit classes from other religious organizations.

Those numbers do little to take away the lawsuit's sting for some local Mormon leaders, even though the lawsuit does not name the church as a defendant.

"It looks like an issue that is really motivated by bigotry rather than anything else," says ISU Institute director Roger Porter.

Porter, in fact, has offered to drop credit status for institute classes to put an end to the controversy. ISU, however, will have none of it. They want to go to court, arguing that the classes offer religion-oriented instruction otherwise unavailable to students.

"We don't have a religious-studies department with our own faculty," says ISU attorney Kelley Wiltbank. "So what we do is allow religious-studies courses that are taught by outside organizations . . . the model in and of itself should not cross over constitutional lines."

But the administration has acknowledged some of Wells' courtship-class content is inappropriate for a public college. This fall they stopped offering credit for it.

"We could have been a bit more circumspect," conceded ISU President Richard Bowen.

Still, the ISU Institute continues to offer for-credit classes titled Teachings of Jesus, Prophets of the Old Testament, Introduction to the New Testament and Contemporary American Churches.

LDS Institutes dot campuses all across the West as well as other parts of the country. Their purpose is to augment the secular curriculum at public colleges and universities. Some Institute credits transfer to church-owned Brigham Young University, though ISU is the only public college that grants credit for the classes, says church spokesman Don G. Russel.

At the University of Utah, which has a large LDS Institute, director Paul Browning said credit isn't offered because the Institute would then have to comply with the secular school's curriculum.

"We don't want to do that," Browning said. "We've never considered it."

Institute classes are hardly standard fare at a public college. Generally, only one or two out of every 100 students are not Mormon. Mostly, the classes combine church doctrine and religious history.

"It has an academic aspect to it, but it also has a spiritual aspect," he says. "We are particularly sensitive if we find out we have people who are non-LDS. We certainly give them an opportunity to express their points of view. We're very cosmopolitan about that."

Wells, a local board member of the American Civil Liberties Union, is anxious to take the issue to court.

"I feel strongly about the separation of church and state, and this is a flagrant violation," she says.

And this is not the first time she has taken the school - and the LDS Church - to task. She and a dozen other students sued when ISU and the church consummated a land swap for a new LDS Institute building near the library. That case was thrown out of court.