Autonomy of religious institutions considered in court case
A developing case could set an important precedent for future Free Exercise disputes. The case focuses on the controversial application of sexual orientation anti-discrimination statutes to religious believers
Yeshiva University is a private Orthodox Jewish University located in New York City that, according to its mission, seeks to educate students according to Torah values—a mission which has embroiled it in recent controversy. On April 26, 2021, four current and former undergraduate students and the YU Pride Alliance sued the University in New York state court to force it to recognize the LGBT group. Claiming standing under the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL), which prohibits discrimination in public accommodations on the basis of sexual orientation, the group seeks access to “the important benefits enjoyed by YU’s 116 other recognized student organizations.”
Yeshiva had denied YU Pride Alliance recognition under its “long-standing policy to officially approve student clubs that are consistent with its Torah values.”
On June 14, 2022, Judge Lynn Kotler of the New York County Supreme Court ordered the University to recognize YU Pride Alliance on the ground that the University is not a “religious corporation.” Notre Dame Law Professor Rick Garnett states that this status matters “because religious institutions are not covered by the relevant New York antidiscrimination law.”
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor stayed the New York court’s injunction, meaning the school would not have to recognize the club as the case proceeded, on September 9, 2022. The court soon reversed course on September 14, however. In an unsigned majority opinion, Justices Sotomayor, Jackson, Kagan, Roberts, and Kavanaugh, denied relief to the University because it possessed “at least two further avenues for expedited or interim state court relief.”
According to Professor Garnett, “It is common for a single justice to grant a temporary stay, in order to give the other justices time to review and consider the matter more fully.” Importantly, the Court hinted that it would be open to taking up the case if the University is unsuccessful in obtaining relief from state courts: “If applicants seek and receive neither expedited review nor interim relief from the New York courts, they may return to this Court.”
Justice Alito, in a dissent joined by Justices Thomas, Gorsuch, and Barrett, contended forcefully for granting Yeshiva relief on Free Exercise grounds. “The First Amendment guarantees the right to the free exercise of religion,” argued Alito, “and if that provision means anything, it prohibits a State from enforcing its own preferred interpretation of Holy Scripture.” He called the state court’s injunction “a shocking development that calls out for review.” Moreover, in a hint of future developments, the Justice predicted eventual success for the University, writing that “Yeshiva would likely win if its case came before us.”
Following the Supreme Court’s denial of relief, Yeshiva University proceeded to pause all student club activity on campus. “Considering the upcoming Chagim,” read a university email referencing a Jewish holiday, “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.”
But the school now intends to resume activities. On September 21, YU Pride Alliance announced that it would agree to a stay of the injunction requiring Yeshiva to recognize the group as the case proceeds. The alliance justified its decision saying, “[W]e do not want YU to punish our fellow students by ending all student activities while it circumvents its responsibilities.” The University, meanwhile, expressed confidence that the parties would “reach agreement on how we can do so, in a way that enables us to protect the University’s religious autonomy, supports our LGBTQ students, and brings harmony to our entire community.” The case is currently proceeding in state court.
PJ Butler, a junior political science student at Notre Dame and president of the College Republicans, recognizing the potential implications for other religious universities such as Notre Dame, sides with Yeshiva: “It seems clear that Yeshiva University should be granted relief in its ongoing dispute with the YU Pride Alliance. The ability of an orthodox Jewish institution to regulate its internal affairs in a manner coherent with the values of the Torah, as Justice Alito identified, is protected by the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.” Butler concluded, “Faithful Catholics ought to watch this case closely as we fight to protect the integrity of our own institutions of higher learning.”
Blake Ziegler, a Jewish senior studying political science and philosophy, disagrees with Justice Alito’s application of the Free Exercise clause: “In my view, Yeshiva University doesn’t have legal standing. According to its charter it’s a secular institution, and although it may have an affiliation as a Jewish institution, it can’t decide when it’s legally religious based on the administration’s goals.”
He argues that there is no tension between the University’s Torah values and recognition of the Pride Alliance, saying, “When I look at the Torah, I see that God created humans in God’s own image, and that means we have to love all people for who they are.” At the center of this case, contends Blake, “There is a group of students at Yeshiva that isn’t being heard and they deserve to be heard.”
Professor Garnett foresees more cases like Yeshiva’s to come. “It seems very likely that these controversies will continue,” he writes. “Certainly, the University of Notre Dame has a strong interest in legal and constitutional rules that permit higher-education institutions to maintain their own understandings of their religious character and mission.”
Adam Morys is a junior from Downingtown, Pennsylvania majoring in history and philosophy with a minor in constitutional studies. When he is not reading, you can find him listening to music and taking walks around campus. Please email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo Credit: Yeshiva University in New York City, from Alan Cordova on Creative Commons