Students at Yeshiva University in New York have been trying for years to have their school recognize an LGBTQ student club, pushing back against the administration’s argument that its status as a Modern Orthodox Jewish school exempts it from the law on sexual assault. city’s human rights.
A group of students and alumni filed a lawsuit last year, and on Tuesday a state judge ruled in their favor, saying that Yeshiva is not a religious institution and therefore must respect the law and recognize the club.
Bina Davidson, who had served as co-chair of the YU Pride Alliance until she graduated in January, said she and other students were delighted with the decision. But their victory may be short-lived.
Administrators of the Yeshiva, named after a type of traditional Jewish religious school found around the world, have vowed to appeal. They also said they would ask the courts to stay the decision.
“Any ruling that Yeshiva is not religious is obviously wrong,” Hanan Eisenman, a spokesperson for the university, said in a statement. “As our name suggests, Yeshiva University was founded to instill Torah values in its students while providing a stellar education, enabling them to live with religious conviction as noble citizens and committed Jews.”
The court’s decision, he said, ‘violates the religious freedom on which this country was founded’ and ‘allows the courts to interfere in the internal affairs of religious schools, hospitals and other charities. “.
The Yeshiva dispute is the latest front in a heated nationwide debate over the limits of religious freedom and whether places of worship, faith-affiliated businesses and organizations or even pious individuals may be compelled to provide employment or other public accommodation to people with different views.
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Federal courts have taken an increasingly expansive view of religious liberty in recent years, and religious liberty cases that have come before the Supreme Court have almost always prevailed since Justice Amy Coney Barrett joined the court in 2020.
In New York, the case hinged on whether or not Yeshiva — a preeminent Orthodox university based in Manhattan and serving about 6,000 students — qualifies as a religious society, a category exempt from the rights law. of Rights of the City of New York, which prohibits discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodation.
Religious exemptions to these laws are common and they provide the legal basis by which entities like the Catholic Church, for example, can refuse to employ women as priests. But in recent years, they have increasingly been used to deny equal treatment to LGBTQ people.
Last June, the Supreme Court ruled that a Catholic social services agency in Philadelphia could refuse to work with same-sex couples applying to foster adoptive children. And last October, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn cited the religious exemption when it fired a gay music teacher at a Catholic school in Queens.
In her decision Tuesday, Manhattan State Supreme Court Justice Lynn Kotler said the case was simple: Yeshiva’s own charter made it clear that the school was not a religious society.
She cited two amendments the school passed to its charter in 1967 that declared it to be “an educational corporation under the Education Law of the State of New York” that was “organized and operated exclusively for educational purposes”.
If the school wanted to declare itself to be a religious corporation, it could have done so, she writes. But that was not the case.
“The Yeshiva charter is not merely form rather than substance,” Judge wrote. “Its corporate purpose is the basis for granting 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 email the student body to advertise their events.
“People would come up to us and say, ‘Oh, I’m a senior and I really struggled, but I never knew there was this club on campus,'” Ms Davidson said. “There are so many students who would benefit from having this community, but by not having the ability to reach the student body, we could never find each other.”
Katie Rosenfeld, an attorney for the students, said the decision shows how the Human Rights Act “protects all higher education students in New York from discrimination and requires all universities to follow it.”
Yeshiva was represented in the lawsuit by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a top public interest legal and educational firm based in Washington, D.C.
Eric Baxter, the Becket Fund’s vice president and lead attorney on the case, said the judge’s semantic analysis led to a “demonstrably flawed” ruling that omitted the forest for the trees.
“The courts are not arguing whether you said enough in your article of incorporation about your religious character,” Mr. Baxter said. “This is contrary to well-established case law that courts cannot divine the religious activities of a religious institution when its religious characteristics are clear and obvious.”
He added, “There are few religious institutions of higher learning that are more religious than the Yeshiva.”
Baxter shared court documents that illustrated how religion shapes Yeshiva’s operations, including a policy that encourages students to undertake intensive religious studies in Israel, with 80% doing so; a requirement that male students spend between one and six hours a day studying Torah; and another policy stipulating that every door on campus must display a mezuza, a traditional religious object.
Yeshiva also said that student government officers are responsible for helping the administration “maintain the religious atmosphere on campus” and that student clubs and other activities are reviewed for “religious compliance.”
“No one goes to Yeshiva University thinking they’re getting a strictly secular education, and the courts can’t afford to say, ‘Well, that’s not a religious education, that’s a secular education.’ Mr. Baxter said.
The Pride Alliance club first formed in 2009, and Ms Davidson said the years-long battle over official recognition has put students in the painful position of feeling like Yeshiva does not recognize their identity sexuality and their religious community were not mutually exclusive. To them, being gay and a Modern Orthodox Jew didn’t seem like an impossible dual identity.
“This fight has been going on for so many years, and so many students have dedicated their student life to YU to make it a safe place, but no matter what we do, it seems that YU doesn’t want to listen to us,” says- she. “Even when a judge says it’s something you have to do legally, YU still wants to fight with us.”