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New York Appeals Court Rules Yeshiva University Must Recognize LGBTQ+ Student Organization
After significant litigation, a New York appeals court has ruled Yeshiva University (Yeshiva) is not a religious corporation exempt from a New York public accommodations law. The case, which garnered significant media attention, made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Yeshiva University is a private Orthodox Jewish school located in New York City. The university was originally chartered in 1897 under the Membership Corporations Law as the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary Association (RIETS), with the stated purpose to “promote the study of Talmud” and prepare Orthodox Jewish rabbis for ministry. Over several decades, the charter was amended to allow numerous secular degrees to be awarded and RIETS was eventually spun off as its own corporation that offered religious degrees. Yeshiva also amended its charter to be incorporated under New York’s education law and to clarify that the university is a “non-denominational institution of higher learning.” Yeshiva is now comprised of three undergraduate colleges and seven graduate schools, and RIETS is a separate corporate entity housed on one of Yeshiva’s campuses.
YU Pride Alliance, a student LGBTQ+ organization, sued Yeshiva University in state court, alleging the university denied formal recognition to undergraduate LGBTQ+ organizations for over a decade in violation the New York City Human Rights Law (NYCHRL), which bars discrimination in public accommodations including on the basis of gender, gender identity, and sexual orientation. In addition to monetary damages, YU Pride Alliance sought an injunction to compel Yeshiva to officially recognize the group as an official student organization.
In defense, Yeshiva argued that the university is a religious corporation under the NYCHRL, and is therefore exempt from the NYCHRL. Yeshiva also argued that the university has the right to decide matters of its faith and doctrine, citing the First Amendment’s free exercise clause and recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions to that effect.
A New York trial court granted YU Pride Alliance’s injunction, and ordered Yeshiva to recognize the organization. The trial court determined that Yeshiva organized itself as an educational corporation and for educational purposes under the state’s education law. Further, Yeshiva’s amendment to its charter was a departure from its initial charter, which initially stated an exclusively religious purpose. In its amended charter, Yeshiva broadened the scope of education it was to provide to include secular degrees, and therefore, education became Yeshiva’s primary purpose.
Yeshiva filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the injunction. The Supreme Court suspended the trial court’s ruling that compelled Yeshiva to recognize YU Pride Alliance and directed the parties to continue litigation in state court.
The New York appeals court agreed with the trial court’s ruling that Yeshiva is not a religious corporation under New York’s education law or the state’s religious corporation law, which would exempt it from the NYCHRL.
On Yeshiva’s First Amendment arguments, the appeals court held that providing YU Pride Alliance with full and equal access to public accommodations does not intrude on Yeshiva’s asserted right to decide matters of faith and doctrine. Additionally, Yeshiva already recognizes LGBTQ+ student organizations at three of its graduate schools, which are legally part of Yeshiva’s corporation, and has done so for over 25 years. Therefore, the appeals court found Yeshiva’s denial of recognition of YU Pride Alliance is not essential to Yeshiva’s central mission as an institute of higher education.
The appeals court also rejected Yeshiva’s argument that recognizing the student group would violate the university’s free exercise of religion. The appeals court determined the NYCHRL is neutral and generally applicable law. The First Amendment does not protect individuals from valid and neutral laws of general applicability, even when those laws compel conduct which goes against the grain of a religion.
Finally, the appeals court rejected Yeshiva’s argument that recognizing the student club violates Yeshiva’s freedom of expression and association because recognition of a student group does not suggest approval or endorsement by a university. The appeals court noted that Yeshiva has made clear it does not endorse or accept the views of its already exiting LGBTQ+ groups, and the NYCHRL does not require such an endorsement. Moreover, there was no violation of Yeshiva’s associational rights when YU Pride Alliance members are already enrolled students.
YU Pride Alliance v. Yeshiva Univ. (N.Y. App. Div. Dec. 15, 2022) 2022 WL 17684269.
While this case is from New York and not binding in California, it does provide insight on how a court would interpret First Amendment defenses asserted by a private religious organization. LCW will be closely monitoring any appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court.