'It feels like an intimidation tactic'

NY lawmakers lash Yeshiva University for demanding private info of LGBTQ club members

University’s lawyers request personal details including medical, employment records from Pride students in legal battle; state lawmakers call move ‘ethically reprehensible’

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

Yeshiva University's Stern College for Women, on 34th and Lexington. The all-male campus counterpart is in Morningside Heights. (Julia Gergely/JTA)
Yeshiva University's Stern College for Women, on 34th and Lexington. The all-male campus counterpart is in Morningside Heights. (Julia Gergely/JTA)

NEW YORK — New York lawmakers on Monday lashed Yeshiva University for demanding private information from LGBTQ students as part of its ongoing legal battle against a campus Pride group, as officials in the US state increasingly pressure the university over the contentious case.

The flagship Modern Orthodox university in New York City has for years refused to recognize the YU Pride Alliance, arguing that approving the club would infringe on its religious beliefs.

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 protections for the free expression of beliefs. The university’s public funding has come under scrutiny as it attempts to tread a line between both sides of the issue.

The university’s lawyers in January demanded personal and private information from members of the YU Pride Alliance who are plaintiffs in the case, including social security numbers, birth dates, tax returns, mental and physical health records, employment information, personal correspondences and educational records. The court filing also asked the plaintiffs to identify all of the officers in the Pride Alliance, including those who are not part of the legal proceeding.

“It feels like an intimidation tactic. In addition to an invasion of students’ privacy, their actions threaten the safety of some students who may themselves might not be able to come out, or are not yet ready to come out,” said Tai Miller, one of the plaintiffs.

“This is an administration that doesn’t make it a safe or welcome space for LGBTQ people on campus and to request their names, their mental health information, their tax returns, is inappropriate and it feels like an invasion of privacy,” he said.

“In this kind of case where it’s so sensitive and so much of this is about people’s experience as students in a support group, it’s aggressive and overreaching,” said Katie Rosenfeld, the lawyer for the plaintiffs.

At least one plaintiff has so far remained anonymous, and the request would reveal their personal information to the defendants in the case, including university staff. Also, if identified, some of the non-plaintiffs could then be subject to further discovery in the case.

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

Five New York State Assembly members wrote a letter to the university’s board of trustees and Rabbi Ari Berman, the university president, saying the demands were “morally and ethically reprehensible.”

“The possibility that students have not made their sexuality, gender identity, or allyship with the LGBTQ community public out of fear of retaliation places them at potential emotional and physical harm, and they are justified in wanting to withhold this information to protect themselves,” the officials said. “Clearly the intent is to silence and intimidate the LGBTQ members and allies of the university’s undergraduate community.”

“There is no legitimate legal reason for these students to provide such personal documents,” the letter said. “The university’s role is to protect and nurture its students, not to attack and tear them down in court.”

Becket Law, the firm representing the university, claimed it had made the request as part of an effort to bypass the discovery phase of the trial and to quantify injuries claimed in the lawsuit.

“Yeshiva has already established a path forward to provide loving and supportive spaces for its LGBTQ students. Well-meaning politicians are kindly asked to learn the facts before attacking Jewish education,” Becket said. “The assembly members are being used and misled by those who resort to publicity stunts because they know the lawsuit ultimately will not prevail.”

Becket is a prominent conservative group that says it focuses on “religious liberty” and takes on cases “that will set [a] strong and lasting precedent for all faiths.” It has repeatedly taken cases to the Supreme Court, which Yeshiva University has said it intends to do in the Pride Alliance dispute.

Contacted for comment, Yeshiva University referred The Times of Israel to Becket’s statement.

A poster advertises an LGBTQ event at Yeshiva University, December 15, 2020. (Courtesy of Yeshiva University student organizers)

The lawmakers’ warning to the school was the latest move by public officials to pressure Yeshiva University over the case.

Late last month, New York City Comptroller Brad Lander warned Yeshiva University that its public funding was at risk due to its “discriminatory actions” against LGBTQ students.

In January, state officials said the university appeared to have misrepresented its status as a secular institution to obtain state funding in a letter to Berman.

The lawmakers demanded the university address apparent contradictions in its applications for public funds within 30 days, but never received a response.

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

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

The university has sought to tread a line between rhetorically welcoming LGBTQ students and refusing to recognize the YU Pride Alliance, with the battle coming as Orthodox communities increasingly reckon with how to accept LGBTQ individuals. Gay sex and same-sex marriage are generally forbidden in Orthodox Judaism.

New York courts have ruled twice that the university must formally recognize the Pride group, saying the school does not qualify for a religious exemption to anti-discrimination laws that ban prejudice based on sexual orientation and other characteristics. The courts 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. Yeshiva University said it would continue to appeal.

The US Supreme Court has signaled interest in the case after a request from the university, saying it may take it up if Yeshiva exhausts the appeals process at the state level, an announcement welcomed by the university.

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, before suing the university the following year.

In a related case, a synagogue linked to the university ejected a transgender woman late last year.

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