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Yeshiva University asks Supreme Court to block forced recognition of LGBTQ club

The school says that officially recognizing the club goes against its religious beliefs and violates its First Amendment rights.

WASHINGTON (CN) — An Orthodox Jewish university asked the Supreme Court on Monday to block a ruling that would force it to officially recognize an LGBTQ club on campus. 

Yeshiva University — which has added secular degrees over time but was founded to prepare students for the Hebrew Orthodox ministry — claims recognizing a club known as the YU Pride Alliance goes against its religious beliefs. 

“Yeshiva has determined, based on consultation with its Roshei Yeshiva — who opine on Jewish law for Jews all over the world — that an official Pride Alliance club, as described by Plaintiffs and as understood by the culture at large, would be inconsistent with Yeshiva’s religious environment and Torah values,” Eric Baxter, an attorney at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, wrote in the school’s application before the court. 

The emergency filing — which was submitted to Justice Sonia Sotomayor — asks the court to halt a ruling from a trial court in New York before the state appeals court has weighed the merits of the case. Baxter said the court could also alternatively consider the application as a petition for writ of certiorari to grant the school relief. Yeshiva claims urgency is necessary since the school’s fall semester has already begun, as has the application process for the club. 

Three former and one current student want the school to formally recognize the LGBTQ advocacy club. The club is expected to host events such as school-sponsored LGBTQ “shabbatons” and LGBTQ-themed Shalach manos during the fall semester. 

In its application, Yeshiva said it had taken steps within the Torah framework to support LGBTQ students. These include continued enforcement of policies prohibiting harassment or discrimination and updating its diversity, inclusion and sensitivity training to reflect the concerns of LGBTQ students. 

In 2019, the students requested an official approval for the Pride Alliance club, but, after consultation with students, rabbis and administrators, Yeshiva announced the club’s approval was denied. In April 2021, the students filed a lawsuit in Manhattan, saying Yeshiva had violated the New York City Human Rights Law by not approving the club. 

The New York City Human Rights Law creates an exception for religious corporations, and Yeshiva claims it falls under it. A state trial court authorized discovery to find out if this was true but ultimately rejected the school’s assertion. The judge found that the school could not be considered a religious corporation under the law and granted summary judgment to the students.

Facing a court order to immediately recognize the club, Yeshiva unsuccessfully asked for a stay while its state-level appeal proceeds. Oral arguments are expected to take place this fall. 

“If Yeshiva is forced to comply, the infringement of its religious liberty, and injury to its reputation as a bastion of Torah values and flagship Jewish university, will be irreparable,” Baxter wrote in the emergency application. “A stay to maintain the status quo is thus essential in aid of the Court’s jurisdiction.” 

The application asks the court if the New York City Human Rights Law supersedes the school’s religious judgment to recognize student organizations consistent with its values. Yeshiva questions if the public accommodation law is neutral under the court’s 30-year-old precedent in Employment Division v. Smith — which says the First Amendment does not protect individuals engaging in illegal acts as part of a religious ceremony. The application also asks if the case should be overruled. 

Yeshiva claims that being forced to recognize Pride Alliance violates church autonomy — something rooted in the religion clauses of the First Amendment. 

“Here, a New York state court told a deeply religious Jewish university how it must resolve a plainly religious question: whether recognizing a Pride Alliance student club is consistent with Yeshiva’s sincere religious beliefs and Torah values,” Baxter wrote. 

The school also claims the ruling violates the Free Exercise Clause by forcing it to abandon its religious decisions. 

“Under this Court’s precedent, laws that burden sincere religious beliefs and are not ‘neutral’ and ‘of general application’ are subject to strict constitutional scrutiny,” Baxter wrote. 

It is not yet clear if or when the court could respond to the application. The court is currently out on its summer recess and is expected to begin oral arguments for its next term on Oct. 3.

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