By Erica Rachel Sultan, Rachel Jacobi and Sara Verschleisser
Zippy Spanjer contributed to this article.
April 29, 2021 Update by Sara Verschleisser, Science and Technology Editor
The Honorable Shlomo S. Hagler, the judge initially assigned to the lawsuit of YU Pride Alliance v. Yeshiva University, has recused himself from the case. A motion of recusal was filed the morning of April 29. Hagler, who received his B.A. from Yeshiva University in 1988, cited avoiding the “appearance of impropriety… as [the Court] maintains continuing affiliations with defendant Yeshiva University as an alma mater of said educational institution” as the reason for the recusal. Hagler has been replaced with the Honorable Lynn R Kotler.
On Monday, April 26, 2021, the YU Pride Alliance’s legal representation formally submitted a lawsuit against Yeshiva University in the New York County Supreme Court on grounds of discriminatory actions taken against LGBTQ+ students at Yeshiva University.
The lawsuit was submitted by attorney Katherine Rosenfeld, partner and civil litigator at Emery Celli Brinckerhoff Abady Ward & Maazel LLP. Rosenfeld described this as a straightforward case, saying that, “This is discrimination under NYC human rights law, plain and simple. YU cannot choose to opt out of civil rights laws. The purpose of this case is to require YU to follow the law.”
The defendants are listed as Yeshiva University, current Vice Provost Dr. Chaim Nissel, and President Dr. Rabbi Ari Berman. Nissel is currently the university’s Title IX coordinator (a federal civil rights law that prohibits a university from discriminating against people based on one’s sexual identity).
YU Pride Alliance et al v. Yeshiva University et al includes five plaintiffs; The first being the YU Pride Alliance, three are former YU students, and one is a current student. Molly Meisels (they/them), former president and founder of the YU Pride Alliance, was an LGBTQ+ student activist and leader during their time on campus. Amitai Miller (he/him), an LGBTQ+ former student, was the president of the Yeshiva College Student’s Association (2018-2019). Doniel Weinreich (he/him), a former board member of the YU Pride Alliance, was an LGBTQ+ ally and advocate on campus.
The final plaintiff is an anonymous current YU student, John Doe (he/him), who is also a YU Pride Alliance board member. In John Doe’s affidavit, he explains that he wishes to remain anonymous since he has not publicly announced that he is a member of the LGBTQ+ community, and only a select group of friends and YU faculty know of his sexual identity.
Meisels shared at the April 27 press conference that “this [lawsuit] was a last resort. For years we gathered together, we marched, we met with the faculty administration and staff. Time and again we’ve been rejected, and we as students have felt rejected. This lawsuit was the only chance to protect current and future students. We wish we didn’t have to be here, but now that we are we hope to represent the queer and allied students of YU in the best way we can.”
The summons and complaint, which is publicly available, describes the grounds on which the YU Pride Alliance is suing Yeshiva University. On three separate occasions since 2019, YU has denied the recognition of an LGBTQ+ club. The first time was in the Spring of 2019 when Amitai Miller tried to form the Gay-Straight Alliance. Miller attempted on multiple occasions to collaborate with at-the-time Dean Chaim Nissel, President Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman, the Office of Student Life, and other administrators. Despite this, Miller was unsuccessful. The administration refused to allow a club with the words “gay” or “LGBT” in the title. The second time, in Spring 2020, YU did not respond to the YU Pride Alliance’s club application. Finally, in Fall 2020, YU refused to recognize an LGBTQ+ club, when the administration denied the YU Pride Alliance official club status.
The filed summons and complaint maintains that these acts are deliberately discriminatory, and inflict emotional and psychological harm on queer students at YU. The complaint argues that by denying a club, YU is denying these students the emotional and psychological benefits such a club would offer, including support, a safe space on campus, guidance, camaraderie, and other resources for support.
YU is aware, as the complaint contends, that their refusal to officially acknowledge a club for LGBTQ+ students is illegal, as shown in a 1995 internal memo: “Yeshiva University is subject to the human rights ordinance of the City of New York, which provides protected status to homosexuals. Under this law, YU cannot ban gay student clubs.” Further, YU is bound by the NYC Human Rights Law, as a nonsectarian university that receives millions of dollars of public funding. YU is not registered as a religious corporation, but as an educational one, allowing it to receive federal and state financial aid. “Because [YU] is a secular institution,” the formal complaint states, “it cannot pick and choose which New York City laws apply to it and which do not. YU is a quintessential place of public accommodation and it may not discriminate against students.”
The complaint argues that YU’s refusal to grant the YU Pride Alliance official club status is discriminatory. YU, despite the demonstrated needs of its students and its own recognition of its legal obligation to recognize the YU Pride Alliance, refuses to acknowledge the YU Pride Alliance as a formal club and does not allow it equal access to YU’s resources. There are tangible benefits available to all 116 other approved clubs on campus, which are denied to the YU Pride Alliance. These benefits include funding, advertising opportunities (such as via YU email lists), as well as the ability to participate in YU club fairs.
Joy Ladin, an English professor at Stern College for Women, shared with the YU Observer that “As a faculty member, as a Jew, and as a member of the LGBTQ community, I couldn’t be prouder of the students who have worked so long, in the face of so much hostility and discouragement, to make a place for LGBTQ students at Yeshiva University [ … ] to refuse to do so – to continue to pretend that these students aren’t here, and, even worse, to pressure them to hide and erase themselves and pretend that they aren’t who they are – makes a mockery of the values which, in other areas, Yeshiva University proudly promotes and represents.”
The YU Pride Alliance, which was informally established in September 2019, is currently an unofficial club for LGBTQ+ students at Yeshiva University. On January 30, 2020, then-President Molly Meisels, along with the other board members, submitted a Club Application form. However, on February 9, 2020, in an unprecedented move, the student council presidents decided to abstain from voting on the YU Pride Alliance, arguing that such a decision would be “too complex and nuanced” for students to vote on.
Following this decision of the student council, the YU Pride Alliance both filed an unofficial claim of discrimination against Yeshiva University with the New York City Commission on Human Rights, and also brought the case to the Beren Constitutional Council. The Beren Constitutional Council rejected hearing the case on grounds of the case having already been brought to New York City Courts, releasing this statement: “Since the New York City courts, rather than the Constitutional Council will ultimately ‘decide’ the merits of [the YU Pride Alliance’s] claim, the justices on the Constitutional Council have determined that it would not be appropriate for us to hear the case or issue our own decision.”
Consequently, the abstention of the student council deferred the decision of whether or not to approve the YU Pride Alliance to the YU administration. Despite this, Yeshiva University never responded or announced a formal decision regarding the YU Pride Alliance’s club application. In a meeting on February 19, 2020 with the YU Pride Alliance, both Vice President Joseph and Dean Nissel refused to give an answer about whether the club would receive official approval.
Once more, in early September of 2020, the YU Pride Alliance applied for official club status. That same day, September 3, YU emailed a letter titled “Fostering an Inclusive Community”, signed by a team created by Berman to address LGBTQ+ issues. The letter outlined the reasons for YU’s decision to refuse an official LGBTQ+ club at Yeshiva University. In the announcement YU claimed that Torah values are complex and the formation of a club would “cloud this nuanced message.” At this point, Yeshiva University has not changed its decision regarding its refusal to acknowledge the YU Pride Alliance.
Following the “Fostering an Inclusive Community” announcement, several students reported the club refusal to Dr. Chaim Nissel, the Title IX coordinator, as a violation of Title IX due to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Three months later, the students were told that their reports had been reviewed and the Title IX committee had not found evidence of discrimination claiming that the announcement had also shown LGBTQ support. The response further stated that the university’s decision about the club was in line with Title IX, as to YU’s status as an institution “guided by Torah values.”
The Title IX complaint response claims that a club is not needed as “There continue to be events and programming that address and discuss issues of concern for the LGBTQ+ community.” While there have been some LGBTQ+ events on campus, beginning with “Being Gay in the Orthodox World” in 2009, historically these events have difficulty gaining approval. According to the affidavit of Jane Doe, a current student, LGBTQ+ event organizers “were met with many challenges and difficulties” because they could not run events without the support of approved clubs or faculty. This included the 2020 “Being LGBTQ+ in an Orthodox World” panel.
Because of its repeated rejections of an official club for LGBTQ+ students, the complaint filed on April 26 argues that Yeshiva University has violated its own policies by contradicting its “Non-Discrimination and Anti-Harassment Policy & Complaint Procedures.” It also sets forth the claim that YU has violated the New York City Human Rights Law; the refusal to allow a club is unequal treatment of certain students based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. The lawsuit calls for a restraint against the defendants’ refusal to recognize a club for LGBTQ+ students, whereby YU will recognize the YU Pride Alliance as an official student club, and damages will be awarded to the plaintiffs.
Yeshiva University, in response to the lawsuit said in a statement to the YU Observer that “Yeshiva University is the bearer of a 3,000 year-old Torah tradition, which we hold sacrosanct. At the heart of our Jewish values is love – love for God and love for each of His children. Our LGBTQ+ students are our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, family and friends. Our policies on harassment and discrimination against students on the basis of protected classifications including LGBTQ+ are strong and vigorously enforced. Our Torah-guided decision about this club in no way minimizes the care and sensitivity that we have for each of our students, nor the numerous steps the university has already taken. We are actively engaged with our students, faculty and rabbinic leaders to facilitate productive discussions with an eye toward understanding and embracing diverse perspectives.”
*This article has been updated to include a statement from the Yeshiva University administration.
Photo Source: YU Pride Alliance