Column: Yeshiva University says it loves its LGBTQ students. They just can’t have their own club
Yeshiva University in New York is famous for many things — its stature as the world’s “premier Jewish institution for higher education,” as the university puts it, its excellent academic rankings and its men’s basketball team, which ended a 50-game winning streak last year.
And now, the university is in the news for less felicitous reasons: Last week, it suspended all student club activity because it has temporarily lost a court fight to ban an LGBTQ club from campus.
The news was reminiscent of the plot of the campy musical “The Prom.” In that fictional story, an Indiana high school PTA cancels prom because a lesbian student wants to bring her girlfriend to the dance. Likewise, Yeshiva is suspending dozens of clubs because it refuses to accommodate its LGBTQ students. My mom used to call this “cutting off your nose to spite your face.”
Yeshiva took this drastic action after a New York state court ordered it to immediately recognize the Pride Alliance, which describes itself in court documents as an undergraduate club that will provide “a supportive space on campus for all students, of all sexual orientations and gender identities to feel respected, visible and represented.”
Members of the Pride Alliance have told administrators that they’ve experienced homophobia on campus, and sometimes feel unwelcome and physically unsafe because of their identities. Creating a safe haven, with the university’s blessing, doesn’t seem like a huge infringement on religious liberty to me, especially as the university has pointedly stated that it loves its LGBTQ students and wants to support them.
The Supreme Court is intent on breaking down the wall that separates church and state. Justice Alito is doing more than his part to help.
In its lawsuit, Pride Alliance argued the university violated the provision of the New York City Human Rights Law that forbids discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender. Pride Alliance does have a point — in 1970, the university changed its legal charter from a religious institution to a secular one. It was a controversial move, but it allowed the university to receive certain public funds not available to religious schools.
Because of the charter change, Pride Alliance claims the university cannot protect itself by invoking the 1st Amendment, which forbids government interference in the exercise of religion.
After appeals courts refused to take on the case, Yeshiva University appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. After some wrangling of its own, the high court sent the case back down to the state but allowed the state court ruling to stand while the legal hassling continues. Justices also said the school can seek relief again in the Supreme Court if things don’t go its way.
Of course, we all know what will happen if the case ends up again at the Supreme Court, whose current majority has apparently never met a civil right that trumps religion.
“A State’s imposition of its own mandatory interpretation of scripture is a shocking development that calls out for review,” wrote Justice Samuel Alito in a dissent arguing against sending the case back to state court. At least four justices, he wrote, are likely to vote to hear the case, and “Yeshiva would likely win if its case came before us.”
“I absolutely was not surprised” by the university’s refusal to allow Pride Alliance on campus, said Rabbi Steven Jacobs, a liberal social activist who grew up in an Orthodox Jewish family in Boston and attended Yeshiva University. For years, Jacobs led the congregation at Kol Tikvah, a Reform synagogue in Woodland Hills. “The Orthodox community needs control,” he told me. “They feel like they can get up and preach humanity, and then take it away with a decision like this.”
Endless mass shootings, police killings and the end of nationwide abortion rights. No wonder celebrating America seems like a sick joke right now.
It seems Yeshiva University administrators are conflating sexual behavior with sexual and gender identity. Supporting LGBTQ students emotionally, academically and politically is hardly equivalent to promoting or even condoning gay sex.
Can you really foster an “inclusive” university, as the administration claims, while denying a group of students the opportunity to come together under the university’s auspices for support and fellowship?
In a delightfully transgressive move, Jewish Queer Youth, a nonprofit that “supports and empowers” LGBTQ youth from the Orthodox Jewish community, announced that it would support all undergraduate club expenses at Yeshiva while the freeze on clubs is in is place.
“YU is halting all clubs because of its queer students,” JQY said in a statement published in Yeshiva’s student newspaper, the Commentator. “So JQY will fund all clubs in honor of its queer students. Instead of dangerously pitting students against each other, we want to send a message of unity and fairness.”
Yeshiva says granting recognition to a club that offers a safe space and support to its LGBTQ undergraduates would be the same as asking it to approve of something that violates its religious beliefs. And yet, in a statement last week, Yeshiva’s president, Rabbi Ari Berman, added this:
“Our commitment to and love for our LGBTQ students are unshakeable. We continue to extend our hand in invitation to work together to create a more inclusive campus life consistent with our Torah values.”
It sounds like the university is sending its LGBTQ students a double message: Take one of our hands, while we slap you with the other.
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