The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A Yale Law School policy was meant to protect LGBTQ students. Other saw anti-Christian bias. Controversy ensued.

The Yale University campus in New Haven, Conn. (Craig Warga/Bloomberg News)

A Yale Law School policy has sparked a heated controversy, with some condemning the rule as discriminating against Christian groups while others praise it for protecting the school’s gay and transgender students.

The school will give financial support only for public-interest fellowships with employers that do not discriminate based on gender or sexual orientation in hiring, school administrators announced this year.

The announcement clarified the school’s long-standing nondiscrimination policy. But it followed a contentious event on campus with a conservative Christian legal nonprofit, Alliance Defending Freedom, that had recently won a high-profile U.S. Supreme Court case in which a baker refused to make a cake for a gay couple’s wedding.

The event at Yale prompted passionate debate, echoing national divisions over the issue.

And Yale’s nondiscrimination policy elicited a national response: Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) accused the school of trying to “blacklist Christian organizations like the Alliance Defending Freedom and to punish Yale students whose values or religious faith lead them to work there.” He announced a subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee would investigate the school’s policies on distributing grants.

In a letter to campus last week, Yale Law School’s dean, Heather Gerken, countered the criticisms. “We cherish our students no matter whom they love, where they worship, or how they vote,” Gerken wrote. “That is exactly why we have a nondiscrimination policy in the first place."

It is part of a broader cultural debate, but some students and graduates said they believe the issues are particularly pronounced at Yale Law School, where tensions have been raw since the confirmation hearings last fall for Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh.

Kavanaugh, a graduate of the university and the law school, was accused of sexual assault that allegedly occurred when he was in high school and college, prompting calls from some faculty and the law school’s dean to take the allegations seriously and spurring protests by students in New Haven, Conn., and Washington. Kavanaugh denied the allegations.

Yale Law students sit out class, travel to Supreme Court to protest Kavanaugh

“The campus culture became a lot more toxic,” said Aaron Haviland, who described himself as a conservative Catholic student who graduated from the Naval Academy and earned a master’s degree at Cambridge University before serving in the U.S. Marine Corps for several years. He is finishing his final year at Yale Law this spring.

Like the rest of the country, the campus became more polarized in his time there, he said. It also became, in his view, far more uncomfortable for students with conservative views.

But a first-year law student blamed Cruz for exacerbating tensions on campus. The policy isn’t controversial, Duncan Hosie said. But for Cruz to inject himself into a campus debate “nationalizes it, polarizes it, creates factions.”

Hosie, who described himself as an LGBTQ student from the San Francisco Bay area who graduated from Princeton and studied in the United Kingdom as a Marshall Scholar before coming to Yale Law, said, “I think Sen. Cruz is looking for a convenient political issue to rally support with his far-right base. Attacking Yale for its nondiscrimination policy makes for an easy target.”

Haviland said he thinks the policy announcement followed directly from tensions over a Yale Law School Federalist Society event, when the group invited a lawyer from the Alliance Defending Freedom to talk about the Supreme Court case Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission.

Haviland said Federalist Society invitations are never meant as endorsements. But the group was already on students’ minds, he said: A classmate doing a summer fellowship with Alliance Defending Freedom had been challenged, in a forum open to the whole class, about bigotry. Multiple student groups boycotted the event.

Members of an LGBTQ group at the school, Outlaws, did not respond to a request for comment.

A few weeks after the Alliance Defending Freedom event, the school clarified its nondiscrimination policy.

Haviland and others saw that as a strike at religious organizations that take a stand on same-sex marriage and other social issues, effectively making it clear Yale would help students involved in some causes but not in others.

"I would just like to see the school be neutral on these issues,” Haviland said.

The school’s administrators decided to adopt the “bigoted, anti-religious animus” of campus groups actively calling for anti-Christian discrimination, a Cruz representative said in a written statement Tuesday. The senator “intends to use all federal legal means available to ensure Yale students have adequate religious liberty protections,” he wrote.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) called for Yale’s federal funding to be yanked.

Hawley said the policy as Yale first announced it “targets religious students for special disfavor,” leaving students who are burdened with debt unable to use the school’s loan repayment program if they choose to work for some faith-based organizations. “Depriving a student of resources available to everybody else because of her religion isn’t just wrong,” Hawley said. For schools receiving federal funds, it’s illegal.”

Hawley said Yale had suggested it may drop or change the policy. “If it does not, the federal government should strip funding from Yale under appropriate statutes and review Yale’s tax-exempt status,” the senator from Missouri said.

Gerken wrote that unlike many schools, Yale pays the salaries of students working for public-interest organizations over the summer and after graduation, and it forgives their loans if their salaries fall below a certain threshold.

“The policy we announced last month is simple: going forward, we will not fund the work of an employer that refuses to hire students because they are, for instance, Christian, black, a veteran, or gay,” Gerken wrote.

The policy is in line with the American Bar Association’s requirements, she wrote, and patterned on federal law.

Just as with federal policy, she noted, Yale will provide accommodations for religious organizations. She said the policy will protect religious liberty.

A member of Alliance Defending Freedom rejected that argument. “I think it’s pretty clear that it’s motivated by anti-religious bigotry,” said Tyson Langhofer, director of the Alliance Defending Freedom Center for Academic Freedom. Yale is caving to activists, he said, and trying to bully religious students and others out of the marketplace of ideas.

Some students and alumni have pushed back against the senators’ investigation, saying they are proud of the school’s stance. In a letter to Gerken, students and graduates wrote they were surprised the policy had sparked criticism, because it is consistent with the school’s long-held, mainstream stance against discriminatory hiring practices.

In the policy, the students and alumni wrote, “we see the best of Yale Law: a commitment to equality and dignity. . . . The policy’s greatest impact will likely be to protect students from still-insidious employment discrimination against LGBTQ people.”

Fatima Goss Graves, president and chief executive of the National Women’s Law Center, a nonprofit that advocates on gender issues, was one of the graduates who signed the letter and said religious freedom is important. “Conflating that issue with the ability to discriminate based on sexual orientation and gender identity is just not okay,” she said.

Yale Law was just making clear it wouldn’t use school funds to support employers who discriminate, she said. “There’s nothing that’s controversial about that, in my view.”