NY Court’s Ruling Against Yeshiva University Should Concern Religious Schools Everywhere

COMMENTARY: The nation’s leading Orthodox Jewish university now appeals to the Supreme Court to vindicate the autonomy of religious institutions.

People walk by the campus of Yeshiva University in New York City on Aug. 30 in New York City. Yeshiva University filed an emergency request Aug. 29 with the Supreme Court asking it to block a judge’s order that requires the university to recognize an LGBTQ student group, because complying with the order 'would violate its sincere religious beliefs about how to form its undergraduate students in Torah values.'
People walk by the campus of Yeshiva University in New York City on Aug. 30 in New York City. Yeshiva University filed an emergency request Aug. 29 with the Supreme Court asking it to block a judge’s order that requires the university to recognize an LGBTQ student group, because complying with the order 'would violate its sincere religious beliefs about how to form its undergraduate students in Torah values.' (photo: Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

A group of college students sued the private religious university they attend after it denied their request for official recognition of their undergraduate LGBTQ advocacy club. University officials explained that official recognition of the group would be inconsistent with the school’s religious beliefs.  

In an affront to the school’s religious autonomy, a state court judge ordered it to recognize the club as an official student group entitled to all of the trappings that come with such a designation — use of school facilities, access to funding, etc. Lacking no other recourse, the university has filed an emergency request with the Supreme Court to protect the right to run the school consistent with their religious beliefs.  

The university in question is not Georgetown or Notre Dame. Nor is it a small evangelical Protestant college. It is Yeshiva University, the nation’s leading Orthodox Jewish university. 

Located in Manhattan, Yeshiva was formed in 1897 to promote the study of the Hebrew Bible and “to assist in educating and preparing students of the Hebrew faith for the Hebrew Orthodox ministry.” While Yeshiva has since added secular degrees, its core mission has never changed. The school’s motto, Torah Umadda, which means “Torah [the Bible and its interpretation] and secular knowledge,” is a call on Jews to uphold their religious values as citizens of the secular world.  

Yeshiva maintains that the message of Torah on the issue of sexual orientation “is nuanced.” While Yeshiva admits LGBT students, it says it cannot lend its “own name or seal of approval” to clubs that appear inconsistent with its values. It’s worth noting that Yeshiva has also declined to approve student clubs involving shooting, videogames, and gambling, as well as a proposed chapter of the Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi. 

The students who filed the lawsuit in state court are members of “YU Pride Alliance,” which they describe as “an unofficial YU undergraduate student group formed in 2018 whose goal is to offer a safe, supportive space on campus for LGBTQ students for ‘peer support, academic and professional networking opportunities, and inclusive community-building.’” They complain that for years Yeshiva has “refused to allow the Pride Alliance (and its predecessors) to operate as an official club solely because of the sexual orientation of the club’s members and its LGBTQ inclusive mission” and “have denied the club the ability to hold meetings on campus, access funding available to other student groups, publicize its events on school list-servs and bulletin boards, and participate in student club fairs.”  

During an interview, one of the students involved in the lawsuit said that she hopes that getting the club established “will lead to many cultural changes on campus.” But changing campus culture isn’t the only thing the students are after. They also asked the court for monetary damages.  

The New York state court judge, pointing to the public accommodations provisions of the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL), which includes a ban on discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation, ruled in favor of the students and entered a permanent injunction ordering Yeshiva to immediately recognize a Yeshiva Pride Alliance. The court rejected Yeshiva’s argument that as a “religious corporation incorporated under education law” it is exempt from NYCHRL.  

Yeshiva is not religious, ruled the court, because its organizing documents “do not expressly indicate that Yeshiva has a religious purpose.” The court also found persuasive the fact that Yeshiva offers many “secular multi-disciplinary degrees” and students do not attend Yeshiva solely “for religious worship or some other function which is religious at its core.” Yeshiva’s requirement that undergraduate students engage in intense religious studies was insignificant.    

The state court probably interpreted state law incorrectly, but what about the First Amendment?  

Yeshiva had raised a church autonomy defense, but the court refused to address it. And despite categorical and individualized exemptions to the NYCHRL, the court rejected Yeshiva’s claim that complying with the law as demanded by the students would violate the school’s free exercise rights. The court brushed aside Yeshiva’s Free Speech and Freedom of Association arguments, asserting that by giving Pride Alliance formal recognition, Yeshiva would not “make a statement” or be “inconsistent with the purpose of Yeshiva’s mission.” Yeshiva’s requests for interim or emergency relief in the New York courts have since been denied.  

This is a scandal, and it’s clear that the Supreme Court must now review the case against Yeshiva in order to vindicate the autonomy of religious institutions like Yeshiva and to clarify how lower courts should evaluate religious objections to local laws.  

Significantly, the state court disregarded recent Supreme Court decisions explaining that courts are barred from resolving religious disputes and interfering in the internal decision-making of religious organizations.  

In two cases involving religious secondary schools, the Supreme Court clarified that the two religion clauses of the First Amendment protect the ability of religious schools to make internal management decisions considered essential to the institution’s central mission, such as the hiring and firing of employees with ministerial functions. In both cases, the schools were represented by legal powerhouse Becket Law. 
Becket is now representing Yeshiva in its petition to the Supreme Court. Becket argues that just as certain employment decisions are exempt from judicial review, the legal doctrine of church autonomy must “protect the Nation’s leading Jewish university from an order commanding it to recognize a student club promoting views that contradict its sincere religious beliefs and Torah values.” It also warns that the state court’s ruling “extends far beyond club recognition at Yeshiva” and “subjects all religious schools to the full scope of the NYCHRL’s public accommodation provisions,” including religious decisions regarding hiring and admissions, curriculum and programming, and student conduct and formation.  
The Supreme Court rarely clears up confusion in the lower courts in cases reviewed on an emergency basis. Recognizing this, Becket suggests the Court consider its request as a petition for review. Two issues in the case, they note, merit the Court’s attention.  

First, current Supreme Court precedent permits laws that are “neutral” and “of general application” even if they burden sincerely held religious beliefs. Becket claims that the state court erred when it concluded that despite the NYCHRL providing for categorical and particularized exemptions, it qualified as neutral and generally applicable. And New York’s courts are not alone. 

Second, several sitting justices agree that the neutral and generally applicable rule is inconsistent with the original understanding of the First Amendment’s free exercise guarantee. It is unlikely that the Supreme Court would finally overrule the case setting forth this rule when resolving Yeshiva’s request for emergency relief. It could do so by addressing the case on the merits. 

YU Pride Alliance members have turned to our courts in order to force a change in how Yeshiva University is run and the its understanding of how the Torah treats issues related to sexual orientation. Such tactics are forbidden by the Constitution’s protection of church autonomy and the free exercise of religion.  

Former Federal Judge Thomas Griffith warned in an insightful commentary recently published by The Wall Street Journal that “It is important to consider the real danger to the First Amendment, and to the continued viability of religious schools, each time a suit like this succeeds.” We must hope that the justices of this Supreme Court heed his advice.