Yeshiva University suspends all student clubs as it seeks to block LGBTQ group

Modern Orthodox university in New York says it will follow ‘roadmap’ from conservative Supreme Court justices to protect its ‘religious freedom’ to bar 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 — Yeshiva University in New York City on Friday suspended all student clubs, after a US Supreme Court decision said the university must at least temporarily recognize an LGBTQ club.

The flagship Modern Orthodox university had asked the highest US court to overrule a state court’s demand that the university recognize a campus Pride club.

The Supreme Court said in a 5-4 decision on Wednesday that Yeshiva University needed to exhaust other options for appeals before it would hear the case.

The decision means the university must recognize the club, at least for now.

The decision was made on procedural grounds, not the larger religious issues, and the dissenting justices said the university could appeal to the Supreme Court again down the road and would “likely win” in such a scenario. Yeshiva University President Rabbi Ari Berman said Thursday the school would “follow their instructions.”

The administration emailed the entire undergraduate student body on Friday to announce its decision to suspend all student clubs, tying the move to the Supreme Court decision and the upcoming holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Yeshiva University announces a decision to suspend all student clubs in an email to the student body, September 16, 2022. (Courtesy)

“Considering the upcoming [holidays] the university will hold off on all undergraduate club activities while it immediately takes steps to follow the roadmap provided by the US Supreme Court to protect YU’s religious freedom,” said the email, which was provided to The Times of Israel.

“Warm wishes for a Shannah Tovah,” the email said, delivering a traditional Rosh Hashanah greeting.

Students pay $150-$200 per semester for club activities as part of their tuition. At least one student who asked to waive the fees due to the club suspensions was turned down. The Yeshiva University school year started late last month and the club application process concluded earlier this week.

Asked to confirm the club suspensions, a university spokesperson said, “We have no additional information beyond yesterday’s statement from Rabbi Berman.”

The advocacy group Jewish Queer Youth, which funds the Yeshiva University Pride Alliance, said the decision to suspend all clubs “dangerously pits students against each other and paints a target on the backs of queer undergraduate students.”

“We ask that YU stop escalating this manufactured religious crisis and follow the law, which now requires them to simply allow LGBTQ+ students access to camaraderie, safety and community on campus,” said said Jewish Queer Youth Executive Director Rachael Fried.

The plaintiffs said the move was “a throwback to 50 years ago when the city of Jackson, Mississippi closed all public swimming pools rather than comply with court orders to desegregate.”

The university appealed to the Supreme Court late last month, citing its rights under the First Amendment, which protects the free exercise of religion. The university argued that recognizing the LGBTQ Pride Alliance Club would be contrary to its beliefs. The dispute centers on whether the university is a religious institution, or a secular one.

The US Supreme Court building in Washington, Monday, June 27, 2022. (AP/Patrick Semansky, File)

Recognition would grant the Pride club funding and other benefits.

A New York state judge in June ruled the school must recognize the group, a decision that the university is appealing in the state court system. The Supreme Court said the university needed to exhaust its other options for reversing the decision before coming before the nation’s highest court.

If the appeals fail, the university “may return to this court,” the Supreme Court justices wrote.

“Yeshiva would likely win if its case came before us,” the dissenting justices said. The court has a conservative majority that has previously ruled in favor of religious groups.

The conservative Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett dissented. Justices John G. Roberts, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Brett Kavanaugh were in the majority. Roberts and Kavanaugh are conservatives.

The dissenting justices sided with Yeshiva University, saying: “The First Amendment guarantees the right to the free exercise of religion, and if that provision means anything, it prohibits a State from enforcing its own preferred interpretation of Holy Scripture. Yet that is exactly what New York has done in this case.”

Activists and a lawyer for the Pride club welcomed the Supreme Court decision as a major victory for LGBTQ rights.

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

In June, New York Judge Lynn Kotler said that the university is chartered as a non-religious organization and is therefore subject to the city’s human rights law barring discrimination based on sexual orientation. The court also said the university offers too many secular degrees to qualify for religious exemptions.

Gay sex and same-sex marriage are generally forbidden in Orthodox Judaism.

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

The university argues it is a religious institution that requires all undergraduates to “engage in intense religious studies” and adheres to Jewish law on campus.

In its emergency appeal to the Supreme Court last week, the university said it was seeking action “to conduct its internal affairs in accordance with its religious beliefs.”

The university has sought to tread a line between welcoming LGBTQ students and refusing to recognize the Pride Alliance.

“Every faith-based university in the country has the right to work with its students, including its LGBTQ students, to establish the clubs, places and spaces that fit within its faith tradition,” Berman said Thursday. “Yeshiva University simply seeks that same right of self-determination.”

“At the same time, as our commitment to and love for our LGBTQ students are unshakeable, we continue to extend our hand in invitation to work together to create a more inclusive campus life consistent with our Torah values,” he said.

Jewish Queer Youth has said the university was “demonstrating the very homophobia that they claim does not exist on campus.”

“Instead of listening to what they are actually asking for, a safe space where they can form friendships and community, YU is deliberately confusing queer youth’s need for self-esteem with a non-existent demand for sexual behavior,” the group said.

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