By Marcela Homsany and Bluma Gross, News Editors
Danielle Lane contributed to this article.
On February 10, 2022, the YU Pride Alliance, an unofficial YU club for LGBTQ+ students and allies, and Yeshiva University went before a judge to discuss whether YU has a legal obligation to allow its students to form a club for the LGBTQ+ community.
During the hearing, Yeshiva University’s legal representation, Eric Baxter, and the Pride Alliance’s legal representation, Katherine Rosenfeld, convened in front of Judge Lynn Kotler.
Though bound by New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL) as an educational and academic corporation (one that receives state and federal aid), Baxter objected to the plaintiff’s discrimination complaint, citing that the University is not a public accommodation and that “it would be a perversion of the law to say YU has to stop being Jewish.” For context, Yeshiva University changed their status from a religious institution to a public accomodation, meaning “it will provide and not discriminate against others in regards to bathrooms, dorming, and so much so forth based on their gender, faith, or sexuality, in order to receive more funding.”
Following the defense, attorney Rosenfeld contended that under New York law, the University would have to be registered as a religious corporation or as a temple to use this defense. Since YU is registered as an academic corporation and not as a religious one, however, the university is not at liberty to enforce such rules. In other words, the argument stems from the allowance to impose faith “based rules at an institution that is not considered or registered as a religious corporation.”
In response, Baxter stated that the University is a religious institution and claimed that “it is an American right for corporations to be religious.” In addition, Baxter voiced that religious organizations cannot be denied funding based on faith.
Rosenfeld rebutted with an argument stating that “YU is a complex university that serves many people for many different purposes.” Therefore, with the addition of the secular registration in the NYCHRL, the university cannot discriminate individuals based on their sexual orientation.
After listening to each attorney speak, Judge Kotler adjourned the court with the parting message of a decision in the future.
The YU Pride Alliance filed a complaint on April 26, 2021, in the New York County Supreme Court. On the grounds of discriminatory action taken against LGBTQ+ students, the complaint noted more than three instances when the Pride Alliance applied for recognition as an official club and were denied by the defendants Vice Provost Dr. Chaim Nissel and President Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman.
Between the Fall of 2018 to the Fall of 2020, members of the Pride Alliance applied each semester to be recognized as an official club to enjoy the same benefits as other campus clubs, including access to campus facilities, funds for club activities, and the ability to advertise for student events.
With every attempt, the student and faculty members of the Pride Alliance were met with resistance. After three rejections, YU’s current policy holds that the university does not recognize any clubs specifically for students who are part of the LGBTQ+ community. Post lawsuit, the resistance of the school towards the club was replaced with radio silence and despite two additional club applications from September 2021 to January 2022, they have been ignored by the university.
In defense, YU argues that due to the fact that they are a religious institution, they are at liberty to accept or deny any on-campus activity that does not align with it’s values. The university argues that a pro-LGBTQ+ club is in direct violation of the religious Jewish values for which YU stands.
In 1995, an internal memo advised lawyers representing Yeshiva University that they “cannot ban gay student clubs” and are obligated, under the NYCHRL, to sponsor provisions as they would to any other student run clubs.
According to the Pride Alliance’s lead attorney Katherine Rosenfeld, “There is no exemption that shields [YU’s] conduct.” Rosenfeld continued to explain, saying that “[the university] operates on paper with all the benefits of nonsectarian status, and now it must operate that way in reality by treating its students equally.”
One of the plaintiffs and previous co-President of the Pride Alliance (SCW ‘22) told the YU Observer, “[w]atching the hearing today made me feel really proud to see how far we’ve come with all the hard work we put into this. I was so proud of our lawyers, I think they did an incredible job portraying the emotion in the case and the law. We know the law is on our side and we are confident the verdict will determine that as well.”
A student (SSSB ‘23) who participated in the virtual hearing expressed to the YU Observer, “[w]atching the hearing, it was fascinating for me to see that the foundational question of whether Yeshiva University is a Yeshiva or University is not what is being argued about here. Despite what most people on campus seem to believe, it appears that, at least legally speaking, the question is whether or not Yeshiva University is a place of solely divine worship or literally anything else.”
The student continued to say, “It is fascinating for me to see how so many Jews in the YU community feel they deserve to have their cake and eat it too: have Hillel’s across the country operate on hostile campuses in order to provide a safe space for its Jewish students but when it comes to a Jewish university all of a sudden these same Jews who understand how students need a community with others like themselves in order to thrive and to truly reach their potential on a hostile campus suddenly can’t seem to understand that LGBTQ+ Jews need a safe space on a hostile campus well. To suggest otherwise very much implies a double standard.”
As of publication the YU Observer has not been notified of any final decisions regarding the case.