Yeshiva University’s Battle for Religious Freedom

September 30, 2022

At the end of August, a Jewish university was compelled to ask the Supreme Court of the United States for emergency relief in order to protect its freedom to follow its faith. A New York trial level court ordered Yeshiva University, a flagship institution of Orthodox Judaism, to recognize an LGBT student group in a formal way. That court and each of New York’s appellate courts refused to delay the order while the appeals process proceeded. Yeshiva had to betray its faith “immediately” by recognizing the “YU Pride Alliance” or risk being held in contempt. Hence the emergency petition to the Supreme Court, which was subsequently denied on September 14.

Although this matter will be decided in the courts, it is worth pausing, taking a deep breath, and stepping back from all the legal nitty-gritty to consider how extraordinary the whole matter is. Anyone with even passing familiarity with Yeshiva University knows that it is a thoroughly religious institution. Although the college is small by national standards, the school’s firm commitment to its faith made headlines around the country over the last year when its basketball team, clad in yarmulkes, had a record-setting season. Yeshiva, in its incipient parts, was founded over a hundred years ago, to promote Torah education in America and, later, to provide a general education in a Torah environment. Today, the institution remains just as committed to that high aspiration, requiring every student to engage in extensive religious study.

The leaders of Yeshiva have repeatedly and consistently maintained that official recognition of student groups that advocate for same-sex relationships and related causes is incompatible with the school’s mission. Yeshiva is a private, religious institution with long- and deeply held beliefs that form the very lifeblood of the place. How could Yeshiva not be permitted to constitute itself in keeping with its mission?  Surely, in a country founded as a beacon of religious freedom and pluralism, a Jewish university must be allowed to create an environment in which it can safely pass the faith on to the next generation.

Or, to flip the question on its head, what do the plaintiffs hope to achieve in beginning this lawsuit? Well, according to one of the litigants, the goal is to impose “cultural changes” and “make a statement.” They are openly hoping that the court system will force “many cultural changes” on a religious institution.  In other words, the students are suing to remake Yeshiva University in their image according to their values. Bear in mind that only one of the three major denominations of American Judaism, Orthodoxy, adheres to the norms these students abhor, and it is the smallest of the three. For those who must have a pride alliance at their school, there is no shortage of opportunities to pursue higher education, even Jewish ones, and even in New York. While Yeshiva’s right to religious freedom does not depend upon this point, it does underscore how outrageous the litigants’ lawsuit is.

A little civic mindedness goes a long way. Nothing good comes from trying to bend every free association to one’s will. Indeed, pluralism requires that we do not. Every American should see that it makes no sense to force an Orthodox Jewish institution to violate Orthodox Jewish beliefs. While Yeshiva University is likely to win the legal battle in the end, this case should not be in court in the first place.

Tom Farr, President of the Religious Freedom Institute

Rabbi Mitchell Rocklin, President of the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty