YU and Administrators Sued for LGBTQ Discrimination by YU Pride Alliance, Students and Alumni
The YU Pride Alliance, three Yeshiva University alumni and a student announced an LGBTQ discrimination lawsuit against the university, as well as President Ari Berman and Vice Provost for Student Affairs Dr. Chaim Nissel, at a virtual press conference on Tuesday, April 27. The plaintiffs allege that YU illegally discriminated against them when the university thrice rejected their proposal for an official LGBTQ club in 2019 and 2020.
The plaintiffs — the Alliance, Molly Meisels (SCW ‘21), Amitai Miller (YC ‘20), Doniel Weinreich (YC ‘20) and an anonymous student — are being represented by Emery Celli Brinckerhoff Abady Ward & Maazel LLP, a litigation boutique in New York City that focuses on civil rights, commercial, criminal and ethics matters. The Alliance is an unofficial student club for providing LGBTQ student support to “feel visible, respected, and represented,” as per its Facebook page.
“What I want Yeshiva University students, faculty, staff, and administrators to know is that I am partaking in this case out of love for the university," Meisels told The Commentator. "The institution has so much potential to be a safe, loving, and supportive environment for queer students and allies. This potential has yet to be realized. Hopefully this case will provide queer students with the club they deserve.”
The lawsuit, which was filed on April 26, alleges that YU has violated its own non-discrimination policies and New York City Human Rights Law. It specifies that 50 years ago, YU elected to be a non-sectarian institution, subjecting itself to NYC Human Rights Law, and has collected hundreds of millions of dollars in New York State funds and benefits. “Because it is a secular institution,” the suit says, “it cannot pick and choose which New York City laws apply to it and which do not.”
In a statement emailed this morning, 48 faculty members of YU’s Cardozo School of Law called on Berman to allow an LGBTQ club on campus. They called the university’s actions “hurtful,” adding that its decisions are “unlawful under federal, state, and city civil rights laws, all of which prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex and sexual orientation.”
Katherine Rosenfeld, lead attorney on the case, noted at the conference that YU is like New York University and Columbia University, both of which are also non-sectarian institutions; therefore, she said, YU does not have protected status as a religious institution.
“There is no exemption that shields [YU’s] conduct,” she said. “It operates on paper with all the benefits of non-sectarian status, and now it must operate that way in reality by treating its students equally.”
Students filed a motion this morning for a preliminary injunction to have YU recognize the club in time for Fall 2021, Rosenfeld said at the press conference. They expect to be in court in the coming months regarding this motion.
According to the plaintiffs’ timeline, in February 2019, a Gay-Straight Alliance received club approval from student council presidents, which is the traditional route for receiving club status. The university overruled the students’ decision and rejected the club. The lawsuit says that Nissel “stated that the existence of the Jewish Activism Club should negate the need for a GSA.”
In September 2019, students marched for LGBTQ equality on the Wilf Campus. The following January, students re-applied under the new name the YU Alliance — to avoid using LGBTQ in the name — and student council presidents abstained from voting, bumping the matter to administrators.
The following month, Nissel and former Senior Vice President Dr. Josh Joseph did not answer questions about approving the club, and YU administrators “again refused” to grant status for Spring 2020.
In September 2020, the Alliance applied for club status, and the administration released a statement announcing new LGBTQ inclusivity policies and that the club would not be recognized at YU since it clouds the Torah’s “nuanced message.”
The Alliance approached the NYC Commission on Human Rights in February 2020, and while they talked to an investigator prompting an investigation, a formal legal complaint was never filed, according to one of the plaintiffs and former member of the Alliance. Rosenfeld also noted in the press conference that the current lawsuit is the first formal legal action taken by the Alliance against the university.
Yeshiva University was designated as a non-sectarian institution in 1970, allowing it to receive state money such as “Bundy” funds. Rabbi Dr. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, a spiritual leader of the institution, was publicly opposed to the change in the university’s designation. He feared that with non-sectarian status, YU would “have only a limited right to formulate rules” with regard to religion.
In 1995, lawyers hired by YU advised the institution that, under the human rights ordinance of the City of New York, “YU cannot ban gay student clubs” and “must make facilities available to them in the same manner as it does to other student groups.”
“Yeshiva University is the bearer of a 3,000 year-old Torah tradition, which we hold sacrosanct,” said a university statement sent to The Commentator. “At the heart of our Jewish values is love — love for God and love for each of His children. Our LGBTQ+ students are our sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, family and friends.”
The statement added, “Our policies on harassment and discrimination against students on the basis of protected classifications including LGBTQ+ are strong and vigorously enforced. Our Torah-guided decision about this club in no way minimizes the care and sensitivity that we have for each of our students, nor the numerous steps the university has already taken. We are actively engaged with our students, faculty and rabbinic leaders to facilitate productive discussions with an eye toward understanding and embracing diverse perspectives.”
Since the September 2020 policies, the university has held several LGBTQ-themed events such as “Mental Health and LGBTQ: What Helps and What Hurts.” In December 2020, a panel of LGBTQ students and alumni spoke about their experience in the Orthodox community, which was the first event of its kind since 2009.
Most recently on April 12, YU’s Jewish Activism Club partnered with Jewish Queer Youth to run an event about sensitivity when discussing LGBTQ-related topics in an “LGBTQ+ Specificity Workshop.”
Elisheva Kohn and Yosef Lemel contributed to this story.
This story was updated to include the university’s statement on the matter.
Photo Caption: Students marched for LGBTQ equality on the Wilf Campus in September 2019.
Photo Credit: The YU Pride Alliance