Paul L. Caron

Sunday, November 13, 2022

Yeshiva University Announces New LGBTQ Club While Continuing Its Legal Battle With The Existing One

Inside Higher Ed, Yeshiva University Announces New LGBTQ Club While Continuing its Legal Battle With the Existing One:

Yeshiva Pride LogoA recent move by the Yeshiva University administration has revealed fractures among students, faculty and staff members regarding what LGBTQ inclusion on campus should look like and who has the right to decide. Administrators at the Modern Orthodox Jewish institution announced plans two weeks ago to create a new LGBTQ support club, sanctioned by the university and its rabbis. At the same time, the university continues to refuse to recognize the existing LGBTQ club formed by students, the YU Pride Alliance. The two have been mired in a messy and ongoing lawsuit for over a year.

The new club, which currently has no students and has yet to be formed, would be called Kol Yisrael Areivim, a Hebrew phrase meaning “all Jews are responsible for one another.” The announcement says the club will be a place for LGBTQ students to “gather, share their experiences, host events, and support one another while benefiting from the full resources of the Yeshiva community—all within the framework of Halacha [Jewish law]—as all other student clubs.”

“We are eager to support and facilitate the religious growth and personal life journeys of all of our students to lead authentic Torah lives, and we hope that this Torah-based initiative with a new student club tailored to Yeshiva’s undergraduate LGBTQ students will provide them with meaningful support to do so,” Rabbi Ari Berman, the university’s president, said in the announcement. ...

Reactions to the announcement ranged from celebration to outrage to head scratching.

Supporters of the university-sanctioned club say it is an unprecedented step for the Orthodox institution, one that should be welcomed as an effort to support LGBTQ students within the university’s religious framework. They argue rabbinic approval of the club quiets dissenting voices in a student body that skews conservative.

Others, including the YU Pride Alliance itself, object to a student club started by administrators and say the university continues to deny LGBTQ students what they’ve demanded in court—a club of their own, run by them and supported like any other on campus. The group also argued against claims in the recent announcement that their club has ties to a national movement that “promotes activities that conflict with Torah laws and values.” They say their club is a support group, just like the new one proposed.

“Unfortunately, the administration created this new initiative alone, without any student input, student participation, or student leadership,” says a written response from the YU Pride Alliance. “It therefore falls short of the simple request we have been making for years—an LGBTQ student club on equal footing as all other student clubs. If YU is genuine in its offer to provide these resources to the actual LGBTQ student club—not the shell of one it created—there is a path forward.” ...

Administrators said in their announcement that the framework for the new club “reflects input and perspectives from private conversations with current and past undergraduate LGBTQ students.”

Mordechai Levovitz, a Yeshiva University alum and clinical director of Jewish Queer Youth, a support organization for Orthodox LGBTQ young people, doesn’t buy it. He said LGBTQ students and alumni were reaching out to one other after the announcement to figure out who had been consulted about the new club. He couldn’t find anyone. He said even staff members at the university counseling office and office of student life appeared to be in the dark.

“It seems suspect,” Levovitz said. “It seems kind of silly. It borders on being foolish. And certainly it lacks the basic respect for the issues at hand here, which are that LGBTQ young people in nonaccepting environments are really at risk for higher levels of suicide and self-harm and mental illness and anguish and all of these really real things.”

He believes the rabbis were well intentioned in sanctioning the club, but the new club felt more like a stunt to make a point in the lawsuit than a genuine effort to support students, given that the students feeling discriminated against weren’t involved in the planning or forming of the new club as far as he can tell. He also is unsure how the new club differs from the original.

Left unsaid in this very public debate is that many believe this move is about whether or not the club supports students having sex, given that a dominant Orthodox interpretation of Jewish law prohibits same-sex sexual relationships and discourages premarital sex. Some supporters of the existing LGBTQ club believe this was the subtext of the university’s announcement that the new club will help LGBTQ students “navigating the formidable challenges that they face in living a fully committed, uncompromisingly authentic halachic life within Orthodox communities.” Administrators also contended that the original club is part of a wider movement that supports non-Torah ideals. ...

There are also divisions over the ways in which non-Jewish organizations have thrown their support behind the university in this case. The rabbinical student who did not want to be identified noted that a number of Christian organizations submitted amicus briefs on the institution’s behalf, including the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, the Association of Classical Christian Schools, and the Archdiocese of New York.

“It’s not YU’s job to fight the culture war,” he said.

Levovitz is also disturbed by the involvement of the Becket Fund, the religious freedom law firm, and the way this dispute within “a tiny university of a tiny people” has turned into a national religious liberty fight.

“There’s also kind of a systemic issue here of Christianity, particularly right-wing Christianity, using Judaism and the Jewish community for their own means,” he said. “Every time this goes to press, every time this goes to the Supreme Court, the Becket Fund looks like heroes to the Christian right.”

​The firm represented Hobby Lobby, the arts and crafts company that stopped offering insurance coverage for contraceptives to employees, and initially raised concerns about how recognizing same-sex marriage would affect religious freedom nationally. Eric Baxter, vice president and senior counsel at the Becket Fund, said the firm is purely secular and nonpartisan and takes on all kinds of First Amendment cases, including many on behalf of religious minorities. He said he’s currently representing Muslims in the U.S. Navy who want to keep their beards, Sikhs in the U.S. Marines who want to wear their turbans and Native Americans in Oregon who want sacred lands restored. The Becket Fund takes all of its cases pro bono and is funded by private donors.

“A win for Yeshiva in this case is a win for people of all religious traditions,” he said. “The law that protects one faith protects every other faith on the same basis.”

Prior TaxProf Blog coverage:

Editor's Note:  If you would like to receive a weekly email each Sunday with links to the faith posts on TaxProf Blog, email me here.

Faith, Legal Ed News, Legal Education | Permalink