At Yeshiva University, Tai Miller was a volleyball player, and president of the student government. But there was one part of his identity the Modern Orthodox school wouldn’t let him celebrate in an official club.
“I’m a gay Jew. There are plenty of gay Jews in New York and anywhere else in the country. It's OK to be gay,” Miller told NY1. “And for some reason Yeshiva is creating an environment where it's not OK.”
Miller — who has since graduated and is now a student at Harvard Medical School — is among the plaintiffs suing the university over its refusal to recognize the Yeshiva University Pride Alliance. They say that amounts to a violation of the city’s human rights law, and two state courts so far have agreed.
Yeshiva University has continued to appeal, arguing as a religious institution, it is exempt from the law. Now, as part of that litigation, it is asking students involved in the suit to turn over personal information, like their tax returns and mental health records.
“This is no more than what feels like an intimidation tactic, an attempt to scare us maybe into silence,” Miller said.
Some of those students have remained anonymous so far — and may not be out to their families or communities, Miller said.
“This threatens the safety of some students and compromises people's right to privacy,” Miller said.
Some members of the State Assembly agree, writing in a letter to the school’s board of trustees that “these tactics are morally and ethically reprehensible and are anathema to the values of our state.”
“Two state courts say that the club is being discriminated against, and for them to use this scare tactic against the students is simply ridiculous and outrageous, and I think they need to stop,” Assembly Member Tony Simone told NY1.
In a statement, Yeshiva’s lawyer — Eric Baxter, vice president and senior counsel at Becket, a law firm specializing in religious freedom cases — said the university had sought to bypass the discovery process, through which the university requested the information, and proceed to the Court of Appeals.
“Yeshiva has repeatedly asked the plaintiffs’ lawyer to bypass this discovery phase in the trial court and instead proceed quickly to the New York Court of Appeals to resolve the legal questions. Unfortunately, plaintiffs’ lawyer has refused this offer. The University’s requests for documents quantifying plaintiffs’ claimed injuries are standard in such cases and made necessary by plaintiffs’ attorney,” he said.
The Pride Alliance’s attorney in turn accused the university of misrepresenting the legal facts.
"In the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty’s haste to disenfranchise the LGBTQ students at YU, they misstate the basics of legal practice in New York. The Appellate Division remitted the case back to the trial court for discovery and trial: discovery is not optional,” Katie Rosenfeld said.
Yeshiva University’s attorney also pointed to a more traditional club they say they’ve launched to serve LGBTQ students -- and criticized the Assembly members for their letter.
“Importantly, Yeshiva has already established a path forward to provide loving and supportive spaces for its LGBTQ students. Well-meaning politicians are kindly asked to learn the facts before attacking Jewish education. The Assembly members are being used and misled by those who resort to publicity stunts because they know the lawsuit ultimately will not prevail,” Becket said.
But students at the school have said they want the right to create and run their own club, just like all the other student groups on campus.
“Unfortunately, YU and its lawyers prefer to harass their students through the courts and fabricate a ‘club’ with no student members than create a safe and supportive space for LGBTQ students,” Rosenfeld said.
As for Miller, the student who is part of the lawsuit, he says the LGBTQ community at Yeshiva University won't back down.
“We're a resilient community. We're a resilient group of people and we're not going to be intimidated easily," he said.