An Idaho State University student is suing the school for offering course credit for off-campus religion classes taught by the Latter Day Saints (LDS) Institute.
If Carole Wells, a 36-year-old sociology major and board member of the local American Civil Liberties Union chapter, wins her case, the school will likely be forced to shut down its religious-studies department. Wells alleges in her suit, due for a jury trial in U.S. District Court March 17, that the university is violating the U.S. Constitution by involving the state with religious institutions.
The department offers classes from three off-campus organizations: the LDS Institute, the Evangelical Studies Center, and the Logos Center for Religious Studies, which is composed of mainline Protestants and Catholics. All faculty are approved by the college. Most have doctorates, and all have at least master's degrees.
"The regional accrediting agency liked the fact that the program guarantees diversity and that students can choose the perspective," says Mike Powell, director of the Evangelical Studies Center and pastor of University Bible Church.
No college funds are used for the classes. "The only connection is that the university gets money for tuition," says Powell. "We even pay for our photocopying." If the university loses the lawsuit, it will likely close the department because it cannot afford to maintain it without depending on the church-based classes.
Wells is aiming at the LDS Institute because it is the biggest target at the overwhelmingly Mormon university. Of the 360 students taking religious-studies courses for credit, five-sixths of them are enrolled in LDS Institute classes.
About 65 percent of the student body is Mormon, and only 100 are involved in evangelical student groups such as Campus Crusade for Christ or the Baptist Student Union. Powell says the Evangelical Studies Center will continue to offer classes whatever the outcome of the suit.
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