ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 145

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New York court says Yeshiva University must recognize LGBTQ club

Ruling upholds previous decision as university battles Pride Alliance and appears to be moving toward another appeal to the US Supreme Court

Luke Tress is a JTA reporter and a former editor and reporter in New York for The Times of Israel.

Illustrative: A Yeshiva University building in New York City, January 13, 2022. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)
Illustrative: A Yeshiva University building in New York City, January 13, 2022. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

NEW YORK — Yeshiva University in New York City must formally recognize an LGBTQ student group, a New York court ruled Thursday, upholding a previous decision amid a lengthy and acrimonious legal battle in which the school has claimed doing so would violate its religious rights.

The university has steadfastly refused to recognize the undergraduate club and has taken measures including temporarily shutting down all student clubs and setting up its own “Torah-based” LGBTQ club to avoid recognizing the YU Pride Alliance.

The Manhattan appeals court on Thursday upheld a previous ruling that said the flagship Orthodox university does not qualify for a religious exemption to anti-discrimination laws that ban prejudice based on sexual orientation and other characteristics.

The court also rejected the university’s argument that it should not have to recognize the club due to First Amendment protections and noted that three of the university’s graduate schools already have recognized LGBTQ groups.

“We find that denial of recognition for the Pride Alliance is not ‘essential’ to Yeshiva’s ‘central mission,’” the ruling said.

Yeshiva University said it would continue to appeal the decision.

The US Supreme Court has signaled interest in the case after a request from the university, saying it may take it up if Yeshiva University exhausts its appeals at the state level. The university has at least one more avenue of appeal in New York and said it plans to turn to the nation’s highest court again.

The Supreme Court’s dismissal of the case was made on procedural grounds, not the larger religious issues.

Katie Rosenfeld, a lawyer representing the YU Pride Alliance, the LGBTQ group at the heart of the case, applauded Thursday’s decision for “affirming that Yeshiva University cannot discriminate against its LGBTQ+ students.”

“We hope that the University will accept the Pride Alliance’s invitation to resolve the lawsuit by finally recognizing an authentic, student-run, mutually acceptable LGBTQ undergraduate student club that operates like all other clubs at YU,” Rosenfeld said.

Jewish Queer Youth, an advocacy group that has supported the university’s LGBTQ students, said it was “heartened” by the decision and urged the university to “consider this matter settled.”

“Each continued appeal takes an emotional toll on YU students and on queer Orthodox youth beyond the walls of the university,” said JQY Executive Director Rachael Fried.

The university has sought to tread a line between rhetorically welcoming LGBTQ students and refusing to recognize the Pride Alliance “to protect the university’s religious autonomy.”

Recognition would grant the Pride club funding and other benefits that are distributed to other student clubs.

The legal battle between the university and the Pride group began in 2020, when LGBTQ student activists accused the university of discrimination in a complaint to the city’s Commission on Human Rights, and then sued the university last year.

The legal dispute revolves around whether the university is a secular institution that must adhere to non-discrimination laws, or a religious one covered by the First Amendment’s protection for the free expression of beliefs.

The university says recognizing the club infringes on its religious beliefs. Gay sex and same-sex marriage are generally forbidden in Orthodox Judaism.

In June, a New York judge said the university needed to recognize the club under a city human rights law barring discrimination based on sexual orientation.

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