By Amy Donaldson, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — A Washington, D.C.-based organization has asked the University of Utah to stop the school’s football coaches from teaching an optional LDS religion class for players.
Americans United for the Separation of Church and State sent a letter to University of Utah President David W. Pershing dated Oct. 19 requesting that football coaches stop teaching LDS Institute classes to players.
“The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution bars public-university employees from teaching religious classes to university students,” the letter reads. “We ask that you put a stop to this activity.”
The classes in question are LDS Institute classes offered to players who sign up or express interest in them. The classes began a few years ago when players, whose schedules didn’t allow them to take the classes offered at the LDS Institute building adjacent to campus, expressed an interest in having a less formal arrangement for such classes. Assistant coach Morgan Scalley helped arrange an instructor from the Intitute to come after practice once a week to teach a lesson to any student-athletes who wanted to attend.
In May, the Deseret News attended one of those classes after practice, which was taught by graduate assistant Sione Po’uha. Po’uha is a certified instructor through LDS Church Educational Services and he taught seminary at Corner Canyon High School last year. The players interviewed for that May article told the Deseret News that the attraction to the modified classes is two-fold — the classes come to them so they’re easier to fit into their busy schedules (especially during the season), and the coaches often use football analogies to teach religious principles.
On Tuesday, head coach Kyle Whittingham said that Po’uha and Scalley “participate on a voluntary basis, but they are not the class instructors in the literal sense.” An instructor from the institute named Terry Baker actually teaches the class, although Baker did not teach or attend the class attended by the Deseret News last spring.
The U’s Office of General Counsel offered this clarification Tuesday night: “It is not a violation of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution for a group of LDS students and coaches to voluntarily participate in a religious instruction activity. At the present time, we have no reason to believe this was an activity sponsored by the University or that there was any coercion of the students to participate. These individuals have the constitutional right to freely exercise their religion and it would be illegal for the University to interfere with that activity.”
The letter to Pershing references the Deseret News article in which Po’uha explained why they’ve tried offering an adapted version of what the LDS Institute offers.
“The Institute understands the dynamics of these boys’ lives,” he told the Deseret News. “It’s usually an hour a week, and we try to pick out principles and doctrines in the scriptures and try to relate those principles to what the kids are going through.”
Redshirt freshman Chase Hansen attends the Institute classes and said he appreciates the effort to support him as a person.
“I love it,” Hansen said in May. “There are so many things you can learn from football that you can relate to the gospel and vice versa. So when you hear (religious doctrine) taught kind of in football terms, applying it to life, it’s awesome. It’s just good to keep your perspective because you can lose it fast on a football field.”
University of Utah spokeswoman Maria O’Mara said the class isn’t something the university offers to students, but rather a voluntary gathering.