N.Y. court: Jewish school not religious enough
A judge says Modern Orthodox school must accept LGBT club
A New York court on Tuesday ruled against a Jewish university that wanted to deny recognition to a pro-LGBT club due to the school’s religious values.
New York City’s Yeshiva University, a Modern Orthodox school, contended that it was a “religious corporation” and not subject to a city law barring businesses from discriminating in the provision of goods and services. School attorneys also argued that requiring the university to recognize the YU Pride Alliance would violate both its free exercise of religion and free speech guarantees under the First Amendment.
In an 18-page ruling, Judge Lynn Kotler rejected all of the school’s arguments. Yeshiva’s counsel said the court should consider how religion functions in the university’s educational environment to determine if it was a “religious corporation.” But Kotler instead pointed to Yeshiva’s charter, which states the school “is and continues to be organized and operated exclusively for educational purposes.”
The judge also dismissed the argument that the purpose of the Jewish school was primarily religious. “The record shows that the purpose students attend Yeshiva is to obtain an education, not for religious worship or some other function which is religious at its core,” Kotler wrote. “Thus, religion is necessarily secondary to education at Yeshiva.”
Becket Fund’s Eric Baxter, who represents the school, disagreed. “I can’t think of a question that’s any more religious than the environment or religious environment you would have on campus,” Baxter said. “And if the university has made a decision about what clubs will contribute to that environment, that’s a religious decision that the courts are obligated to respect.”
The university’s requirements suggest religion is central to its mission. A website statement on vision and values points to the Torah as its source. Court documents submitted by school attorneys demonstrated an integrated program of religious and educational studies, including a requirement that male students spend one to six hours a day studying the Torah. Student clubs are also reviewed for “religious compliance.”
The court’s rationale may illustrate an ignorance of or hostility to religion—especially when religion is integrated with other ostensibly secular activities. Modern Orthodox Jews are open to the secular world while retaining adherence to Jewish law, according to Rabbi Saul Berman. From the outside, educational offerings and student life may look like that of other secular universities. But Baxter said it’s different.
“Yeshiva considers all education, including what you might call secular education, part of its religious mission,” he said. “They believe students who have a good secular education have better capacity to understand the Torah and understand Jewish tradition and values and better understand how to and have capacity to build community to serve others.”
Baxter said the court largely ignored the university’s religious autonomy argument, as well as the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia upholding the right of Catholic Social Services to place children in accordance with the organization’s religious beliefs. As a rationale, the court said that whenever the government allows any exemptions to an otherwise applicable law, that law is subject to strict scrutiny where it burdens religious liberty.
In a statement to Yeshiva’s newspaper, the Commentator, university officials signaled the fight was not over: “While we love and care for our students, who are all—each and every one—created in God’s image, we firmly disagree with today’s ruling and will immediately appeal the decision.”
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