The New York City Human Rights Law states that every citizen has an “equal opportunity to enjoy a full and productive life.” It therefore prohibits educational institutions from discriminating based on specific protected characteristics, including sexual orientation. But Yeshiva University, an Orthodox Jewish institution in New York, refused to comply with the Human Rights Law after some of its students tried to form an LGBTQ student group. The University refused to grant the club official recognition and the benefits associated with such recognition.
After the LGBTQ group sued the University, a state trial court issued an injunction requiring the University to recognize the LGBTQ student group. The University then appealed to an intermediate state appellate court. Among other contentions, the University argued that application of the Human Rights Law to the University would violate its religious autonomy under a doctrine known as the “church autonomy doctrine.”
On October 14, 2022, along with the American Civil Liberties Union and the New York Civil Liberties Union, Americans United filed an amicus brief in support of the student group. We explained that the church autonomy doctrine is a narrow one and does not apply here. While it prohibits courts from wading into a religious institution’s religious disputes, it does not bar courts from applying anti-discrimination laws to religious institutions. We further highlighted how, if adopted, the University’s argument would create a general opt-out for all sorts of religious institutions from a wide range of laws, especially anti-discrimination laws.
On December 15, 2022, the New York appellate court affirmed the state trial court’s decision. It held that “providing the [LGBTQ group] with full and equal access to public accommodations does not intrude on [the University’s] asserted right to decide matters of faith and doctrine,” and that requiring the University to recognize the LGBTQ group does not violate any of the University’s other constitutional rights. On January 17, 2023, the University filed a motion with the intermediate appellate court for permission to appeal to New York’s highest appellate court, which was denied on March 30, 2023. The case now continues in the trial court on the question of damages.