Yeshiva University’s fight against LGBTQ club draws state funding questions

Pride event at Yeshiva University
A 2019 Pride event on campus at Yeshiva University.
Michael Luongo

Three New York State lawmakers are demanding answers from Yeshiva University (YU) after the school purported to be an “independent” and “non-sectarian” not-for-profit institution for funding purposes, but later claimed to be a “religious corporation” when it sought to ban an LGBTQ campus club. The school hauled in hundreds of millions of state dollars as part of the funding agreements, the lawmakers said.

YU has been mired in a protracted legal fight against YU Pride Alliance, an undergraduate club seeking recognition on campus.

The letter from state lawmakers, dated January 11, was signed by out gay State Senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal of Manhattan’s District 27 as well as State Senators Liz Krueger of Manhattan’s District 28 and Toby Ann Stavisky of Queens’ District 16.

“As members of the New York State Senate, we are concerned about the discriminatory treatment of LGBTQ students by Yeshiva University (YU) while receiving funds from the Dormitory Authority of the State of New York (DASNY) and other state funds,” the state lawmakers wrote. “YU’s discriminatory behavior is wholly inconsistent with the purposes for which state funding is provided, namely, to promote the fullest possible participation by all students in the state’s educational opportunities.”

Hoylman-Sigal, when reached by phone on January 12, commended the YU Pride Alliance and said he was “heartsickened” that the students “have had their club taken over by Yeshiva University.”

“[The students in the YU Pride Alliance] are really admirable in their efforts and I think it’s incumbent on elected officials to stand for what we also need, which is separation of church and state,” Hoylman-Sigal said. “Yeshiva University cannot both claim it is a religious institution for the purposes of the lawsuit against the YU Pride Alliance and claim it is a secular body and institution in order to receive hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer funds from the State of New York.”

Brad Hoylman-Sigal speaking
State Senator Brad Hoylman-Sigal and his colleagues are giving Yeshiva University 30 days to answer why it is claiming to be both secular and religious.Donna Aceto

The most recent development in the court battle came on December 15 when the Manhattan-based New York Appellate Division, First Department, ruled against the university’s appeal of an order by New York County Supreme Court Justice Lynn R. Kotler to recognize the YU Pride Alliance “immediately.” Gay City News legal contributor Arthur S. Leonard reported that it is likely that the university will petition the Court of Appeals to challenge the latest ruling. If that fails, the school could turn to the US Supreme Court.

Kotler had found that the school did not qualify for an exemption from the city’s Human Rights Law. A “religious corporation” would qualify for an exemption, but the school is incorporated under New York State Education Law rather than Religious Corporation Law and the judge concluded that the school’s corporate charter stipulates that it is a non-sectarian educational institution.

The letter delivered by state lawmakers went on to state that in 2009 and 2011, DASNY issued bonds for the school to pay for renovations and construction of school buildings. The funding totaled $90,000,000 in 2009 and $140,820,000 in 2011.

“As with all its agreements, DASNY issued these bonds based on the university’s representations to DASNY that the university would use these funds in compliance with DASNY’s requirements set forth in its loan agreements,” the lawmakers wrote.

The loan agreements, they said, specified that “the project or any portion thereof” shall not be used for “sectarian religious instruction or as a place of religious worship or in connection with any part of a program of a school or department of divinity for any religious denomination…”

Lawmakers are giving the school 30 days to provide “a full and complete accounting from YU” regarding its use of the funds from 2009 and 2011, according to the letter.

“We will not abide the use of state funds to support discriminatory behavior that excludes LGBTQ students from their right to an equal education,” the letter stated. “We urge Yeshiva University to immediately reverse course and cease its anti-LGBT policies.”

The school denied it is treating LGBTQ students any differently.

“The allegations of discrimination are equally false and offensive,” Eisenman told Gay City News on January 12. “Our students, including our LGBTQ students, come to Yeshiva because of our commitment to Torah values. In keeping with our commitment to our students, YU last year announced the framework for the Kol Yisrael Areivim club for our undergraduate students who identify as LGBTQ and are striving to live authentic Torah lives. Our Office of Student Life is working together with our students on the activities of this club.”

In October, the YU Pride Alliance issued a written statement blasting the Kol Yisrael Areivim club as a “desperate stunt” and a “sham,” saying “its creation involved no collaboration with queer students.”

Hoylman-Sigal slammed the school’s response to the letter.

“To say that the allegations are false and offensive is absurd since multiple courts have found that they are discriminating against LGBTQ students,” Hoylman-Sigal told Gay City News. “And the notion that taxpayers would be on the hook for discrimination is utterly offensive to me.”