(RNS) — Yeshiva University in New York City filed an emergency request Monday (Aug. 29) asking the Supreme Court to block a court order that would require it to immediately recognize an LGBTQ pride club.
“Yeshiva and its President are now being ordered to violate their religious beliefs or face contempt,” the request said. “That ruling is an unprecedented intrusion into Yeshiva’s religious beliefs and the religious formation of its students in the Jewish faith.”
The move is in response to a lawsuit by a group of students at the Orthodox Jewish university who have been advocating for a school-sanctioned undergraduate LGBTQ student group since 2019. In April 2021, four students representing the YU Pride Alliance sued the school for discrimination, and in June the New York County Supreme Court decided in favor of the students, at least three of whom are now alumni. The school was ordered to recognize the student group “immediately.”
To date, the school’s requests to delay the order have been denied. If the Supreme Court grants Yeshiva University’s request, the school wouldn’t have to recognize the student group until its appeal has been heard.
According to the New York County Supreme Court’s decision, Yeshiva University’s right not to recognize the student group hinges on whether the school is technically a religious institution. The court found that despite the school’s religious character, its 1967 amended charter does not explicitly state a religious purpose. After the amended charter, the court ruled, the school’s primary purpose became educational, rather than religious, in nature. Yeshiva University’s leaders disagree.
“The Torah guides everything that we do at Yeshiva—from how we educate students to how we run our dining halls to how we organize our campus,” Ari Berman, president of Yeshiva University, said in a press release.
Eric Baxter, VP and senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the group representing Yeshiva University, told Religion News Service that the 1967 amended charter is a “bare bones document” and is not a fair indication of the school’s religious identity. He pointed to Yeshiva’s religious studies requirements, dress code, use of spiritual advisers and intentional recruitment of Jewish students as a few indicators of the school’s “intensely religious” identity.
“Yeshiva loves its LGBTQ students, and it is walking a very careful line between loving and accepting all, while still upholding its Torah values,” Baxter told RNS.
Marc Stern, chief legal officer with the American Jewish Committee, says the case isn’t clear-cut. “The question is, having declared themselves secular, how do you then turn around and say ‘we’re a religious institution, you’re impinging on our ability to set our own religious mission’?” asked Stern, who says the school amended its charter in the ’60s to receive government benefits. He added that from his view, the biggest challenge facing the student group is that its members don’t just want to meet — “they want the stamp of approval of Yeshiva.”
Rachael Fried, executive director of JQY (Jewish Queer Youth), a nonprofit that supports Orthodox Jewish queer youth, told RNS the students simply want the space and funding to gather on campus. She said that by making the conversation into a debate about the orthodoxy of same-sex sexual activity, the students are being “sexualized in a way that is inappropriate.”
“They’re looking for a place where they can build community and friendship, and they’re also looking for funding for pizza and movie nights, picnics and senior dinner,” said Fried, who is also a Yeshiva graduate. “In framing this as a religious emergency that has to be stopped, to me, (Yeshiva is) demonstrating the very homophobia that they claim doesn’t exist on campus.”
In lieu of funding from Yeshiva, Fried’s organization has been funding the events for the YU Pride Alliance and providing mental health support for group members. Fried argued that by refusing to approve the group, Yeshiva is barring vulnerable students from finding the community necessary for their well-being.
“It seems like this is a hill that the university is willing to die on, and that the hill they are choosing is one that harms their own students,” said Fried.
The Supreme Court ordered the plaintiffs to respond to Yeshiva’s filing by Friday, and Baxter said he hopes to hear from the Supreme Court by early next week.
According to Stern, the case presents another iteration of a fraught, if frequent, legal question: When civil rights and religious liberty come into conflict, which yields?
Last year, the Supreme Court favored religious liberty over LGBTQ rights in a case about a Catholic adoption agency that refused to work with same-sex couples, and this fall the court is slated to hear a case that weighs whether a web designer’s religious rights allow her to refuse to create a wedding website for same-sex couples.
“The issue has been argued about for two decades or more now. And Yeshiva’s case could provide a vehicle for resolving it, certainly in the context of an NGO, if not necessarily in the commercial marketplace,” Stern said. “So it could be a crucially important case — or it may turn out to be nothing.”