NY officials: Yeshiva U must explain public funds as it won’t recognize LGBTQ group

State lawmakers say university may have misled agency to get over $230 million earmarked for non-religious purposes while claiming religious protections to reject campus Pride club

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 — State officials in New York said Wednesday that Yeshiva University appeared to have misrepresented its status as a secular institution to obtain state funding, the latest fallout from the university’s lengthy and acrimonious legal battle against recognizing an LGBTQ student group.

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.

In a letter to university president Ari Berman, three New York state senators said the school had apparently contradicted its own position to secure over $230 million in public funding.

“We are concerned about the discriminatory treatment of LGBTQ students by Yeshiva University (YU) while receiving funds” from the state, the letter said. “YU’s discriminatory behavior is wholly inconsistent with the purposes for which state funding is provided, namely, to promote the fullest possible participation by all students in the state’s educational opportunities.”

The university has said in court that it does not have to recognize YU Pride Alliance because it is a “religious corporation.” But the lawmakers wrote that it told the state it was a “nonsectarian, non-for-profit institution of higher learning” to receive funding.

The funding, issued in 2009 and 2011, came from a state agency called the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York, which provides services to universities and other institutions. The university used the funds to finance construction and renovation projects.

The university said in its agreements with the authority that it would comply with the state agency’s loan conditions, which stipulate that the projects receiving the funding not be used for sectarian religious purposes or for worship, according to the lawmakers’ letter.

Rabbi Ari Berman at his investiture ceremony inaugurating him as president of Yeshiva University, September 10, 2017. (Courtesy)

“Yeshiva University’s discriminatory behavior and claimed status appear to be at odds with the statements the university made to obtain state funds. If so, the university is not using those funds for approved state purposes,” the letter said.

The letter demanded “an immediate accounting” from Yeshiva University on its use of the funds within 30 days. The potential repercussions for the university were unclear.

The letter was first reported by The New York Times and was signed by New York state senators Brad Hoylman, the chair of the senate judiciary committee; Liz Krueger, the chair of the senate finance committee; and Toby Ann Stavisky, the chair of the senate’s higher education committee.

“We will not abide the use of state funds to support discriminatory behavior that excludes LGBTQ students from their right to an equal education. We urge Yeshiva University to immediately reverse course and cease its anti-LGBT policies,” the three said.

A university spokesperson said in response to the letter that the US Supreme Court has ruled in recent years that the government may not restrict funding to religious schools over their beliefs. The university has previously said it intends to take its case to the nation’s top court.

“The First Amendment allows us to provide world-class professional training in the context of, and alongside an intense religious education. Yeshiva has always welcomed LGBTQ students,” the university said. “Yeshiva will continue to defend the right of its students to be treated by the state on equal footing with students at every other university. Students come to Yeshiva because of its commitment to Torah values. They choose for themselves how best to live those values.”

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 “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.

Yeshiva 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 reckon with how to welcome LGBTQ individuals. Gay sex and same-sex marriage are generally forbidden in Orthodox Judaism.

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

The Manhattan appeals court ruled last month that the university must formally recognize the YU Pride Alliance, upholding a previous decision that said the school 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. 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 exhausts the appeals process 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. Conservative justices said the university would likely win the case there, and the university has said it will turn to the highest court again.

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 last year.

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.

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

Talia Avrahami and her family were pushed out of Shenk Shul in Manhattan following a controversy over Avrahami’s identity at her place of employment late last year. The synagogue is housed in a Yeshiva University building and receives support and services from the school.

Avrahami said the university’s administration had told the synagogue to remove her and that she met with the school’s leadership to ask for acceptance, but was rebuffed.

The synagogue disputed her account, but would not elaborate. Yeshiva University referred requests for comment to Shenk Shul and did not answer whether transgender individuals are welcome to attend services at university-affiliated synagogues and prayer groups.

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