Explainer: The Yeshiva University case and its implications for religious liberty

September 12, 2022

Update: Since this explainer was originally posted, a stay has been agreed to by both Yeshiva University and YU Pride Alliance. This means that other student groups may operate normally, and Yeshiva does not have to recognize YU Pride Alliance on campus while its appeal is considered

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 to vacate a previous stay by Justice Sotomayor and deny Yeshiva University’s emergency request to intervene in its dispute over recognition of an LGBTQ group on campus. A New York court has ruled that Yeshiva must recognize the group on campus, despite it being a violation of Yeshiva’s deeply held religious beliefs, even while the university’s appeal works its way through state court. The ERLC joined a brief in this case asking the Supreme Court to provide relief for the university. The brief reasoned that this issue was not limited to Yeshiva University but has broader implications for religious institutions who wish to carry out their missions according to their deeply held religious beliefs. 

In its denial, the court said that Yeshiva University had other avenues in New York courts in which to seek relief before coming to the Supreme Court. However, in the dissent of the denial, four justices state that they “are likely to vote to grant certiorari if Yeshiva’s First Amendment arguments are rejected on appeal, and Yeshiva would likely win if its case came before us.” This is a hopeful signal that if Yeshiva does not find relief in the state courts, it may likely return to the Supreme Court to again seek protection.

What are the facts of the Yeshiva University case?

Yeshiva University is a Modern Orthodox Jewish center of higher education. The university was petitioned by a student LGBT group (YU Pride Alliance) for recognition, which the university declined. The university argued that doing so would violate their mission as a religious training center. Though the university and its president, Rabbi Ari Berman, want students of all sexual orientations and gender identities to be welcomed, the university also wants to uphold their understanding of the Torah and its traditional understanding of gender and sexuality. The student group claims that failure to recognize the group has deprived them of funds which other groups receive, as well as the ability to notify students through a shared email list. 

YU Pride Alliance has petitioned lower courts to force the university to recognize their group. The New York state courts agreed with the plaintiffs, arguing that the university was primarily an education institution rather than religious organization. The university appealed the ruling stating, “As a deeply religious Jewish university, Yeshiva cannot comply with that order because doing so would violate its sincere religious beliefs about how to form its undergraduate students in Torah values.” 

What is the current status of the case?

In a ruling on Friday (Sept. 9), the Supreme Court in an order signed by Justice Sotomayor stayed the ruling of a New York State court which had ordered the university to recognize the student group. While the order was appealed, state court judges had refused to stay the order. The Supreme Court stay was overruled when the whole Supreme Court weighed in on Wednesday, Sept. 14, denying the request. Yeshiva University now must decide its next steps in the New York courts, but if it is unable to find relief, it is likely to return to the Supreme Court again.

As Baptist Press reported, “the school may ask state courts ‘to expedite consideration of the merits of their appeals,’ the justices said. It also may file a motion with the Appellate Division for permission to appeal to the New York Court of Appeals the denial of stay in the lower court and seek expedited consideration of the motion, according to the order.” The Supreme Court has generally been amenable to religious liberty cases in recent years, with a clear 6-3 conservative majority that has also often been able to secure votes from more liberal judges as well. 

What implications does the case raise for religious liberty?

At the heart of the Yeshiva University case is the right of religious organizations to teach and structure themselves according to their deeply held religious beliefs. The court’s initial ruling represents a clear overreach of government authority. The ruling would essentially force the university to choose between compliance with the law and sincerely held religious beliefs. Yeshiva does not engage in practices that are discriminatory in its failure to recognize the LGBT student group. Rather, it seeks to uphold its commitment to a traditional Orthodox understanding of gender and sexuality. The government has no clear and compelling interest in overruling the university, and as such should abstain from trampling the rights of the faithful.

At the same time, the case has wider implications because if courts can compel this private university, then they could also compel other religious organizations. At a moment when Congress has considered legislation such as the Equality Act, which would similarly force Christian and other religious institutions to support sexual orientation and gender identity laws, as well as the Respect for Marriage Act, which seeks to enshrine a federal right to same-sex marriage, there are clear points of conflict emerging between religious freedom and the sexual revolution. This court case is but the latest example of lower courts attempting to force religious institutions to change their religious convictions. 

How should Southern Baptists think about the case? 

Southern Baptists should stand with the defendants of Yeshiva University because we recognize that the rights of conscience and the free exercise of religious belief are matters beyond the state’s control. Yeshiva University seeks only to fulfill its mission to train Orthodox Jews to take their faith into a modern world, informed and shaped by a traditional reading of Torah. This is inseparable from who they are as an institution. To ask them to violate this is tantamount to asking Southern Baptist seminaries to do the same. 

Southern Baptists have long been defenders of religious liberty for all, including religious minorities. Though Yeshiva University holds a view that the wider culture does not understand, and frankly abhors, that does not give the courts the ability to trample the rights of conscience. This is why the ERLC joined with other religious organizations in support of Yeshiva University’s right to teach in accordance with deeply held beliefs. The ERLC and Southern Baptists remain committed to defending the free exercise of religion, and of the right of religious education institutions to build their curriculum around their sincerely held beliefs. 

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24