The Supreme Court said Wednesday that an Orthodox Jewish university in New York is required for now to officially recognize an LGBTQ student group in a rare legal defeat for religious rights.
In a 5-4 vote, the justices rejected an emergency request made by Yeshiva University, which claims that recognizing the group would be contrary to its sincere religious beliefs.
The decision leaves intact a decision by a New York state judge, who ruled in June that the university was bound by the New York City Human Rights Law, which bars discrimination based on sexual orientation. The university argues that it is a religious institution and therefore should be exempted from the law. Requiring the school to endorse the group would be a “clear violation” of its First Amendment rights, which protect the free exercise of religion, it said.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor last week imposed a temporary hold on the state court ruling, giving the court more time to consider the request. Wednesday's court order said the university could turn to the high court again if it is not able to block the ruling in New York state courts.
Four of the court's six conservative justices dissented, saying the court should have intervened immediately.
"I doubt that Yeshiva’s return to state court will be fruitful, and I see no reason why we should not grant a stay at this time. It is our duty to stand up for the Constitution even when doing so is controversial," Justice Samuel Alito wrote.
The LGBTQ Pride Alliance group, which first sought recognition from the university in 2019, sued in April 2021, saying the school was required to grant its request because it is a place of public accommodation that is covered by the anti-discrimination law.
Yeshiva, which describes itself in court papers as “a deeply religious Jewish university,” has said officials concluded after consulting with Jewish religious scholars that an official LGBTQ club would be inconsistent with its religious values. The university, which was founded in 1897 for religious purposes, says it maintains that character even as it has expanded its educational scope to include secular programs.
The New York anti-discrimination law includes an exemption for religious organizations, but Manhattan-based Judge Lynn Kotler concluded that Yeshiva did not meet the relevant criteria.
Pride Alliance, joined by four individual plaintiffs, said in its response that the university’s request was premature and questioned whether it was facing an emergency. All the university would be required to do is provide the group access to the same facilities that 87 other groups already receive, it said.
Kotler's ruling “does not touch the university’s well-established right to express to all students its sincerely held beliefs,” lawyers said in court papers. They noted that an LGBTQ club has existed within the university’s law school for decades and that the university’s student bill of rights says the New York Human Rights Law applies to students.
Members of Pride Alliance have said they are planning events backing LGBTQ rights for the coming weeks, some of them timed around Jewish holidays.
The Supreme Court’s 6-3 conservative majority has strongly backed religious rights in recent cases, including several in its last term, which ended in June. Among those rulings, the court ruled in favor of a high school football coach who led prayers on the field after games, sparking concerns from school officials that his actions could be viewed as government endorsement of religion prohibited under the First Amendment.
The court has also weighed several cases pitting LGBTQ rights against religious rights, ruling last year in favor of a Catholic Church-affiliated agency that Philadelphia had barred from participating in its foster care services because the group refused to place children with same-sex couples. In 2018, the court ruled in favor of a conservative Christian baker in Colorado who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple.
Along similar lines, the justices are set to hear oral arguments this fall in a case involving a web designer from Colorado who wants the court to rule that, based on her evangelical Christian beliefs, she does not have to design wedding websites for same-sex couples.
The court is on its summer recess, with the new term set to start in October.