Justice Sonia Sotomayor on Friday afternoon granted, at least for now, a request by Yeshiva University to block a New York state court ruling that directed the university to approve an official “Pride Alliance” student club. The university, which has four campuses in New York City, had argued that complying with the state court’s ruling would violate its religious beliefs.
Yeshiva’s request went to Sotomayor because she is initially responsible for emergency appeals from the geographic region that includes New York. Although the justices can and do act on such requests by themselves, particularly when the requests are not substantive or controversial, they sometimes opt to refer requests to the whole court so that their colleagues can weigh in. Here, Sotomayor acted alone in putting the state court’s ruling on hold. In a brief order, Sotomayor indicated that the ruling would be frozen “pending further order” from her or from the full court – indicating that there is likely more to come on the university’s request.
The dispute began last year, when a group of students and former students filed a lawsuit in a New York trial court, alleging that Yeshiva’s refusal to recognize an LGBTQ advocacy and support club violated New York City’s human rights law. That law prohibits “public accommodations” – that is, places that are open to the public – from discriminating based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
The state trial court agreed and ordered the university to recognize a Pride Alliance club. It rejected Yeshiva’s argument that the human rights law does not apply because the university is a religious institution, rather than a public accommodation.
After the New York appeals courts declined to put the trial court’s ruling on hold, Yeshiva came to the Supreme Court, calling the ruling an “unprecedented intrusion into church autonomy.” The Supreme Court has long held, the university contended, that religious organizations have broad discretion to structure themselves “as they see fit ‘to assist in the expression and dissemination of any religious doctrine.’” Noting that the window for clubs to apply for recognition closes on Sept. 12, the university asked the justices to act quickly.
The students seeking recognition for a Pride Alliance club urged the justices to stay out of the dispute. At this stage, they observed, the state trial court’s ruling meant only that the university would have to give the Pride Alliance the same access and benefits that it gives 87 other student groups. They rejected the university’s characterization of itself as a religious institution, stressing that the university only awards secular degrees and does not require its students, faculty, or administrators to be Jewish.
There is no need, the students added, for the court to intervene at this stage because the state courts could still resolve the case based on state law – specifically, the question whether the university qualifies as a public accommodation. And under a federal statute, the students emphasized, the Supreme Court has no authority to intervene and block preliminary rulings like this one. Rather, the Supreme Court only has the power to stay “final judgments” by state courts – which, the students argued, the trial court’s ruling is not. Putting the ruling on hold now, the students cautioned, would “invite a flood of similar applications directly from state trial courts when no state appellate court has passed on the merits.”
The university pushed back against the students’ argument that the Supreme Court cannot step in now. The trial court’s order is a final decision, it insisted, because the state courts have “‘finally decided’ to refuse Yeshiva a stay protecting its First Amendment rights for the duration of this appeal.” If the Supreme Court did not step in, the university argued, it would “deliver a blow to the soul of Yeshiva” and other religious institutions by “allowing courts to impose immediately binding changes to their institutions while this Court stands aside.”
In her brief order on Friday afternoon, Sotomayor did not explain her decision to temporarily put the state trial court’s ruling on hold. However, the final sentence of her order, indicating that there could be further action on the university’s request, suggests that the court may have wanted to act at least preliminarily before the Sept. 12 deadline for clubs to apply for recognition.
This post is also published on SCOTUSblog.