Yeshiva University lawsuit focuses on gay rights and religion

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The Supreme Court is once again weighing how to balance religious freedom and LGBTQ rights in a case that could have ramifications for faith-based schools across the country.

The case, Yeshiva University vs. YU Pride Alliance, pits Orthodox Jewish leaders against students seeking official recognition of a gay rights club. Yeshiva, which is in New York, asked the Supreme Court to intervene after a lower court said it must recognize the Pride Alliance club while the trial unfolds.

“This is a very unusual situation,” said Eric Baxter, vice president and senior counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the law firm that represents Yeshiva. “I don’t know of any other instance where a religious school like this has been told what to do on its own campus.”

What is the background to the Yeshiva University gay rights case?

Yeshiva’s legal battle began in April 2021, when a group of students filed a trial challenging the school’s refusal to recognize YU Pride Alliance. They said Yeshiva leaders were violating a policy called the New York City Human Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

“YU’s refusal to recognize the YU Pride Alliance sends a clear and painful message of rejection and non-belonging to its LGBTQ students and their allies. … An official LGBTQ student club is not only the plaintiffs’ right as students, it is necessary for their health and well-being on campus,” the lawsuit stated.

Headteachers responded by arguing that Yeshiva qualified for religious exemption from the policy. Generally, the government cannot force a faith-based university to change its stance on LGBTQ rights, they said.

“The Yeshiva, in consultation with its leading rabbis, has concluded that the club would be incompatible with the religious environment it seeks to maintain on campus,” Baxter said.

How is it going at Yeshiva University?

As part of their defense, Yeshiva leaders pointed to the many religious aspects of campus life. Schools petition to the Supreme Court notes that students and faculty members are expected to live by “Torah values” and that religious studies are an integral part of the curriculum.

Although students can earn secular degrees, they also receive extensive religious training and have an assigned spiritual advisor, Baxter said. Class times observe the Sabbath, and campus dining halls are kosher-compliant.

“Yeshiva University…is like BYU for Orthodox Jews. But even more intense,” he said.

The Supreme Court’s request says headteachers have said no to student clubs focusing on hobbies like shooting and gambling due to religious concerns.

“He also declined to endorse a Yeshiva chapter of the Jewish ‘AEPi’ fellowship, as he concluded that certain aspects of traditional fellowship life would be inconsistent with Yeshiva’s Torah values,” the application reads.

What happened in the lower courts?

Trial court judge acknowledged yeshiva has many religious aspects, but says it cannot qualify for exemption under New York City human rights law .

The policy’s religious freedom protections were aimed at institutions that don’t offer as many secular degrees, the judge said.

The school appealed that decision, along with an order that Yeshiva officials must officially recognize YU Pride Alliance as the trial unfolds. The Supreme Court’s request, filed Monday, specifically asks the court to overturn that order.

“The question is whether he should immediately recognize” this group of students, Baxter said.

Yeshiva University students Aaron Heideman, left, and Marc Shapiro study at the New York University library on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019.

Luis Andres Henao, Associated Press

Why is the Yeshiva trial important?

Yeshiva argues that the lower court’s decision endangers faith-based schools across the country. The Supreme Court has repeatedly said that religious freedom protections don’t end when a school begins offering secular degrees, Baxter said.

“It is truly an absurd decision to say that an organization as intensely religious as Yeshiva is not religious. It shows that something clearly went wrong,” he said.

Meanwhile, student supporters argue that school officials are overreacting and that Yeshiva can accept the Pride Alliance club without enacting new LGBTQ rights policies.

“By portraying this as a religious emergency that needs to be stopped, to me, (Yeshiva) demonstrates the very homophobia that they believe does not exist on campus,” said Rachael Fried, executive director of JQY (Jewish Queer Youth), a non-profit organization that supports young gay Orthodox Jews, Religious News Service.

What will happen next?

The students’ response brief to the Supreme Court was due Friday afternoon, so the court is expected to issue its decision on Yeshiva’s request for assistance soon.

Regardless of whether or not the Supreme Court intervenes, the school’s appeal against the original ruling will continue to make its way through the New York court system this fall, Baxter said.


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