Idaho university can give credit for Mormon-led classes

Thursday, March 19, 1998

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Idaho State University will confidentially monitor the way Mormon Institute of Religion courses are taught at the school, a Salt Lake newspaper said.

On March 17, U.S. district court Judge Edward Lodge issued a stipulated judgment in Idaho that the off-campus, for-credit religion courses offered at ISU do not violate the First Amendment’s provision for separation of church and state.

A confidential settlement, signed by the plaintiffs and Idaho State University just minutes before Lodge issued his ruling, concedes that improvements can be made in the religious-studies program, The Salt Lake Tribune said in a copyrighted story.

It also requires ISU to pay $30,000 to an attorney for the plaintiffs, the newspaper said.

The settlement closed the 2-year-old case in which the plaintiffs claimed that ISU’s relationship with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was too cozy.

The deal stipulates that ISU administrators will establish a committee to confidentially evaluate the courses, which also are offered by two other religious organizations, to ensure they are academically legitimate.

However, the settlement stipulates that reports issued by the committee will be given to the ISU president and the plaintiffs’ attorneys, but otherwise will be kept confidential, the newspaper said.

Defendants in the case included ISU President Richard Bowen and the Idaho Board of Education. Some of the 10 plaintiffs have ties to the American Civil Liberties Union.

The settlement prohibits plaintiffs or defendants from commenting on the case, but the plaintiffs decided to drop the court fight because of money, the newspaper said.

They were afraid Lodge would rule against them, and would force an appeal, which could cost $15,000. If the group did not appeal, members could be forced to pay the defense attorneys’ fees, which some estimated could cost $100,000.

For the plaintiffs, the increased scrutiny of the classes is the only good news to come from the prolonged court fight.

Last year, Lodge tossed out the group’s contention that a land swap between ISU and the Mormon church was illegal. The plaintiffs argued ISU did not get a fair deal in the swap, which provided land next to the ISU library for a new institute building. Lodge ruled the swap was a fair deal.

Then the plaintiffs went after the school’s policy of granting credit for the institute classes. Their argument was that a state university has no right to grant college credit for classes that are no more rigorous than Sunday school courses.

Mormon institutes can be found on private land adjacent to a number of public college campuses., but ISU is the only school in the country that grants credit for institute classes.

School administrators said they do so because the school does not have its own religious-studies department. ISU also grants credit for classes taught by other religious organizations, but the institute classes draw the most students on this campus where about 65 percent of students claim ties to the Mormon church.

About 2,000 students take institute classes, though only about 300 take the courses for credit. About 60 students take credit courses from other religious organizations representing several Christian faiths.