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McCaughey: Protecting freedom of religion

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Betsy McCaughey

LGBTQ advocates are winning political backing and legal guarantees with lightning speed. Only a decade ago, President Barack Obama still claimed to oppose gay marriage, a position that would be unthinkable for him now. He evolved.

But politics and religion are different. Politicians may be able to turn on a dime. Christian and Hebrew colleges and universities are saying, “not so fast.” Christianity is 2,000 years old, and Jewish teachings are older. LGBTQ advocates are demanding that the tenets of these faiths be changed to accommodate gay rights and gay activities on campus.

Recently, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor temporarily halted an order from a New York court compelling Yeshiva University to recognize the YU Pride Alliance as an official university club with funding and listing in school publications.

Yeshiva had refused to recognize the club, because Yeshiva’s mission “is to instill Torah values in its students,” a university spokesman explained. Yeshiva welcomes students of any faith and any sexual identity to attend, but it will not put the university’s imprimatur on clubs or activities — such as gambling, video games or gay sex — that violate timeless Torah values.

Sotomayor’s order gave Yeshiva a temporary reprieve until the high court takes further action. But Christian colleges and universities across the U.S. are facing similar legal challenges.

The American Civil Liberties Union sides with LGBTQ advocates, claiming they’re battling intolerant people who use religion as an excuse to discriminate.

The ACLU is wrong. The battle isn’t about one right but two: the right of LGBTQ individuals to be protected from bias, and the longstanding right of all Americans to practice their religion — a right guaranteed by the First Amendment.

To protect the free exercise of religion, the federal Department of Education has routinely granted an exemption to religious colleges and universities to practice their religious tenets, even when they conflict with LGBTQ rights protected under Title IX.

The exemption applies to about 120 out of the roughly 5,300 institutions of higher education in the U.S., leaving LGBTQ rights protected on the vast majority of campuses, and students free to choose those schools. Now, the Religious Exemption Accountability Project, an advocacy group, is suing to overturn the exemption. The Biden administration has also launched civil rights investigations against several of these religious colleges.

One of the targeted colleges is Oral Roberts University, which requires students to pledge not to engage “in any illicit, unscriptural sexual acts,” meaning any sex outside of traditional marriage.

Some Christian schools are slowly modifying their codes of conduct in response to the growing acceptance of gay rights, reports the American Bar Association. Shirley Hoogstra, president of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, has urged members to reconcile “deeply held religious beliefs and equal treatment of persons under the law.”

In 2019, Azusa Pacific University, an interdenominational school in California, held six months of campus meetings to find common ground and ultimately removed its ban on same-sex dating. It still bans all sex outside of traditional marriage. These are small but promising changes. In a pluralistic society where rights inevitably clash, there has to be give and take.

When Yeshiva won its temporary stay, Yeshiva’s Rabbi Ari Berman celebrated it as a victory for religious freedom, but added, “make no mistake, we will continue” to welcome LGBTQ students.

In New York, religious institutions are exempt from local laws barring differential treatment based on gender or sexuality. But New York Judge Lynn R. Kotler ruled against Yeshiva because she mistakenly concluded that Yeshiva was not a “religious institution.” It clearly is.

Other religious colleges and universities across the nation are weighing in, urging the justices to take the Yeshiva case. The freedom to teach enduring religious beliefs hangs in the balance.

Advocating for LGBTQ rights is popular these days, while religious rights are given second-class status, especially by the Left. The Court has noticed and appears determined to protect the free exercise of religion. The Court’s majority understands what politicians sometimes ignore. When it comes to rights, you can’t pick and choose. In a free society, all rights have to be protected, not just what’s woke.

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— Betsy McCaughey is a former lieutenant governor of New York and author of “The Next Pandemic.”