NYC official: Yeshiva University public funds at risk due to LGBTQ policy

Funding for flagship Modern Orthodox university is increasingly under scrutiny as it argues it is legally a religious institution to avoid recognizing student Pride group

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 — New York City Comptroller Brad Lander on Monday warned Yeshiva University that its public funding was at risk due to its “discriminatory actions” against LGBTQ students, the latest fallout from the university’s lengthy and acrimonious legal battle against recognizing a student Pride 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. The university’s public funding has come under scrutiny as it attempts to tread a line between both sides of the issue.

Lander said in his letter to the university’s president, Rabbi Ari Berman, that as comptroller he has been monitoring the university’s refusal to recognize the Pride group.

“I must urge your institution to change course and offer a secure environment for your LGBTQ+ students and staff to create a supportive space to rightfully express their full selves,” said Lander, who is Jewish. “Yeshiva University’s own anti-discrimination policy is wholly undermined by the refusal to allow students to form this group within their own terms and mission.”

He said all recipients of New York City public funding must follow municipal laws, including human rights protections, which the university has refused to comply with.

Yeshiva University has received around $8.8 million in city funding since 2010, Lander said.

“The University’s discriminatory actions may put future funding and associated services at risk,” he wrote. “I have confidence in your ability to make the right decision and welcome everyone in Yeshiva University including the LGBTQ+ members of your institution.”

Illustrative: New York City Comptroller Brad Lander at a protest against the Israeli government in New York City, February 21, 2023. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

The university said in response to the letter, “We will continue to defend our students against these false allegations. We have already established a path forward which provides loving and supportive spaces for our LGBTQ students. We kindly ask well-meaning politicians to please learn the facts before attacking our students’ Jewish education.”

Last month, state lawmakers said the university appeared to have misrepresented its status as a secular institution to obtain over $230 million in public funding from New York State and demanded an explanation.

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.

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

The Manhattan appeals court ruled late last year 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 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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