Amid Court Fight, L.G.B.T.Q. Club Proposes a Compromise to Yeshiva
An L.G.B.T.Q. student group offered to delay seeking recognition from Yeshiva University, its members said Wednesday, after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling prompted the Modern Orthodox Jewish institution to suspend all undergraduate club activities rather than sanction the group.
Although Yeshiva lost at the Supreme Court on procedural grounds last week, it immediatelyannounced its intent to refile its case in state court. In a deal proposed on Wednesday, the student group’s lawyer said it would stand down while the case played out, if the university agreed to allow the other clubs “to resume effective immediately.”
In a statement, the students called their decision “painful and difficult” and said that Yeshiva had a responsibility under city human rights law to treat their club, the Pride Alliance, like any other on campus. The university and its lawyer did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Wednesday morning.
“We do not want Y.U. to punish our fellow students by ending all student activities while it circumvents its responsibilities,” they said. “Y.U. is attempting to hold all of its students hostage while it deploys manipulative legal tactics, all in an effort to avoid treating our club equally.”
The group’s decision is the latest development in the conflict between the country’s leading Modern Orthodox Jewish university and many in its own community, including students, alumni and faculty who have circulated open letters to the administration criticizing its refusal to recognize the club.
The university has said that it bears no ill will toward its L.G.B.T.Q. students but that recognizing the club would fly in the face of the religious values it wants to inculcate in undergraduates. And being legally compelled to do so would violate the university’s religious freedom, officials say.
Their decision last week to cease the activities of all student clubs, from the Accounting Society to the Zoology Club, was a measure of how far they are willing to go to defend what they see as a basic right.
But the students and their supporters say they do not believe there is a Jewish value that justifies denying gay students the same recognition as other groups. They argue that Yeshiva must treat them equally because it is an institution of higher learning and not a house of worship.
“Our goals are not in any sort of misalignment with Torah values,” said Avery Allen, 19, a biology major who serves as a co-president of the Pride Alliance. “We want a safe space for our students, and I don’t think any part of that is in conflict with Torah or with Halacha, Jewish law.”
The dispute at Yeshiva has ballooned beyond its Manhattan campus to become the latest flash point in a nationwide debate over the line between civil rights and religious freedom, and whether religious groups and entities affiliated with them can legally deny services and public accommodation to people with differing views.
It has also caused anguish for some in the Modern Orthodox Jewish community. In one open letter to the administration, more than 1,000 Yeshiva alumni said the conflict had rendered their alma mater unrecognizable to them.
The letter said the university had “deployed our sacred Torah values in service of goals our Torah does not sanction” and “implied that no authoritative interpretation of Torah values can allow for even the most basic inclusion of openly LGBTQ+ people in Torah-observant communities.”
Yeshiva educates roughly 6,000 students on four campuses in Manhattan and the Bronx. Those at the center of the case have said they do not believe their identity as Modern Orthodox Jews and as members of the L.G.B.T.Q. community are at odds.
“There are a lot of outside influences that try to create a false sense of mutual exclusivity,” said Ms. Allen, the student leader. “But for those living it, I don’t think that has to be.”
The case hinges on the question of whether Yeshiva is an educational institution or a religious corporation, a category that is exempt from the New York City Human Rights Law, which prohibits discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations.
Such exemptions are common and provide the legal basis for widely accepted aspects of American religious life, such as the refusal of the Roman Catholic Church to employ women as priests.
But in recent years, such exemptions have increasingly been used to justify denying services to L.G.B.T.Q. people. For the Pride Alliance, not receiving official recognition at Yeshiva means being deprived of space to meet, money to host events and the ability to advertise events on university websites and email lists.
The plaintiffs include the student club, an anonymous student member of it and several alumni of Yeshiva. In court, they argue that Yeshiva is a university and as such is in violation of the law.
But Yeshiva has countered that its curriculum and policies make it clear that it is both a university and a religious institution.
Justice Lynn Kotler of State Supreme Court in Manhattan ruled in favor of the students in June, saying that the university’s charter states that it is “an educational corporation under the education law of the State of New York” that was “organized and operated exclusively for educational purposes.”
In response, Yeshiva asked the U.S. Supreme Court for an emergency stay of the state court ruling. That request was granted on an interim basis on Sept. 11 by Justice Sonia Sotomayor but was rejected by the full court five days later by a vote of 5 to 4.
In that decision, the majority said that Yeshiva would have to abide by the lower court ruling while it pursued challenges in state court, and only after that could it return to the Supreme Court.
The university has been represented in court by lawyers from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a law firm based in Washington, D.C., that is known for a string of high-profile Supreme Court victories. And the case has been closely watched by other religious groups.
Earlier this month, several influential groups told the court of their intent to file briefs in support of Yeshiva, including the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.
The dispute has also drawn the interest of outside groups that support the Pride Alliance. After the university said it would block student clubs, a local organization, Jewish Queer Youth, said it would finance student activities on campus. It has funded the Pride Alliance since the club was founded in 2019, said its spokesman, Joe Berkofsky.
On Tuesday, more than a dozen students on Yeshiva’s campus in Washington Heights declined to speak about the case.
One student who declined to provide his name said he was worried that if Yeshiva recognized the club, it would upset rabbis at the school. But he said he was also concerned that not recognizing the group would tarnish the university’s reputation.