Students at Yeshiva University in New York have spent years trying to get their school to recognize an LGBTQ sorority, resisting the administration’s argument that its status as a Modern Orthodox Jewish school exempted it from the city’s human rights law. .
Last year, a group of students and alumni filed a lawsuit and on Tuesday a state judge ruled in their favor, declaring that Yeshiva is not a religious institution and thus must follow the law and recognize the club.
Bina Davidson, who co-chaired the YU Pride Alliance until graduating in January, said she and other students were excited about the ruling. But their victory may be short-lived.
Administrators of Yeshiva, which is named after a type of traditional Jewish religious school found around the world, promised to appeal. They also said they would ask the courts to uphold the decision.
“Any statement that Yeshiva is not religious is clearly wrong,” Hanan Eisenman, a university spokesperson, said in a statement. “As our name implies, Yeshiva University was established to instill Torah values in its students while providing a great education, enabling them to live with religious conviction as noble citizens and devoted Jews.”
The court’s decision, he said, “violates the religious freedom on which this country was founded” and “allows courts to interfere in the internal affairs of religious schools, hospitals and other charitable organizations.” (While many non-Orthodox Jewish congregations support LGBTQ rights, Orthodox leaders tend to interpret the Torah as promoting more traditional ideas about gender and sexuality.)
The Yeshiva dispute is the latest front in a heated nationwide debate over the limits of religious freedom and whether places of worship, religiously affiliated companies and organizations or even devout individuals can be forced to provide employment or other public accommodations to those of differing views.
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Federal courts have taken an increasingly broad view of religious freedom in recent years, and religious freedom cases that have come to the Supreme Court have almost always prevailed since Judge Amy Comey Barrett entered the court in 2020.
In New York, the case hinged on whether or not Yeshiva — a leading Orthodox university located in Manhattan and employing approximately 6,000 students — could be considered a religious company, a category exempt from the New York City Human Rights Act. Rights Law, which prohibits discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations.
Religious exceptions to such laws are common, and they provide the legal basis on which entities such as the Catholic Church can refuse to employ women as priests. But in recent years they have been increasingly used to deny homosexuals equal treatment.
Last June, the Supreme Court ruled that a Catholic social agency in Philadelphia could refuse to work with same-sex couples who applied to take in foster children. And last October, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn cited the religious exemption when it fired a gay music teacher from a Catholic school in Queens.
In her ruling on Tuesday, Judge Lynn Kotler of the Manhattan State Supreme Court said the matter was simple: Yeshiva’s own charter made it clear that the school was not a religious company.
Citing two amendments the school passed in its charter in 1967, she stated that it is “an education corporation under New York State Education Act” that was “organized and operated for educational purposes only.”
If the school had wanted to declare itself a religious business, it could have, she wrote. But it didn’t.
“Yeshiva’s charter is not just form over substance,” the judge wrote. “The corporate purpose is the foundation for obtaining licenses and receiving grants and other public funding.”
Ms. Davidson, the former president of the Pride Alliance, said Yeshiva’s refusal to recognize the club over the years had deprived the group of resources, such as funding for speakers and the ability to send emails to the student organization to advertise for their events.
“People came up to us and said, ‘Oh, I’m a senior and I’ve had a really hard time, but I never knew there was a club on campus,’ said Ms. Davidson. with this community, but by not being able to reach the students, we would never be able to find each other.”
Katie Rosenfeld, a lawyer for the students, said the decision shows how the human rights law “protects all higher education students in New York City from discrimination and requires all universities to abide by it.”
Yeshiva was represented in the lawsuit by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a high-profile public-interest legal and educational company based in Washington, D.C.
Eric Baxter, the vice president of the Becket Fund and the lead attorney in the case, said the judge’s semantic analysis had led to a “clearly wrong” ruling that missed the forest for the trees.
“Judges should not quibble over whether you’ve said enough in your incorporation article about your religious character,” Mr Baxter said. “That goes against well-established case law that says courts will not question the religious activities of a religious institution when its religious features are clear and obvious.”
He added: “There are few religious institutions of higher education that are more religious than Yeshiva.”
Mr. Baxter shared documents in court illustrating how religion shapes Yeshiva’s activities, including a policy that encourages students to pursue intensive religious studies in Israel, of which 80 percent do; a requirement that male students spend between one and six hours per day studying the Torah; and another policy requiring every door on campus to display a mezuzah, a traditional religious item.
Yeshiva also said student government officials will be tasked with helping the administration to “maintain the religious atmosphere on campus” and that student clubs and other activities will be judged for “religious adherence.”
“Nobody goes to Yeshiva University thinking they’re getting strictly secular education, and courts can’t say, ‘Well, this isn’t religious education, this is secular education,'” said Mr. Baxter.
The Pride Alliance club was first founded in 2009 and Ms. Davidson said the years-long battle over official recognition had left students in the painful position of feeling that Yeshiva failed to recognize that their sexual identity and their religious community are not mutually exclusive. . To them, being gay and being a Modern Orthodox Jew didn’t feel like an impossible dual identity.
“This battle has been going on for so many years, and so many students have dedicated their student lives to YU to make it a safe place, but no matter what we do, it seems like YU doesn’t want to listen to us,” she said. “Even if a judge says this is something you have to do legally, YU still wants to fight us.”