A March 17 jury trial is set to determine whether Idaho State University religious education classes inappropriately promote the teachings of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
A ruling was issued Wednesday by U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge, who will try the case.
The plaintiffs claim religious classes violate constitutional guarantees separating church and state.
“The judge basically said he needs more development of facts to determine whether or not the method by which we offer the religious studies program violates the U.S. or Idaho constitutions,” school attorney Kelley Wiltbank said.
Religious studies programs are offered on college campuses nationwide, but the difference is Idaho State has a free-standing Latter-day Saints Institute and students receive credit for taking some classes there, Wiltbank said.
The civil suit was filed by a group opposed to a land swap between the school and the Mormon Church. Lodge on Wednesday upheld the deal, saying it was negotiated and completed legally.
He also dismissed the city of Pocatello as a defendant. The plaintiffs accused city officials of conspiring with the university and the church to vacate two alleys adjacent to the construction site.
The only defendant in the trial will be the university. Lodge said the plaintiffs conceded “ISU assumes all responsibility for what occurs in the classrooms.”
“The Court is not persuaded by ISU defendants’ argument that what ISU does regarding religious classes is just like her sister institutions so no violation must be taking place,” Lodge said in his ruling.
Depending on what happens at trial, Wiltbank said the school may have to re-examine its whole religious program.
The friction dates back to 1995 when the church approached university officials about a trade allowing a new institute. Idaho State acquired the existing institute building and the church got a parking lot and land at Bartz Field.
A two-story Mormon institute on the former parking lot is nearing completion and should be ready for January classes, said Roger Porter, institute director.
Porter said he was pleased with the judge’s ruling because it reaffirmed the deal was an “arms-length business transaction.”
The plaintiffs also had asked Lodge to consider several options, such as ordering the new institute be torn down. They seek an unspecified amount of damages.