For supporters of two lesbians at Yeshiva University’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York law is clear-cut: the school may not discriminate against them in housing.
But two Jewish groups are not so sure, and two others have weighed in on the side of the school.
At the heart of the issue is the college’s policy of restricting its graduate housing to students only — except in the case of married students, who are given priority for studio apartments.
The American Civil Liberties Union, which filed suit last week in Manhattan Supreme Court in behalf of medical students Sara Levin and Maggie Jones, charged the college with discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and marital status. It asked for unspecified damages for emotional distress and extra housing and commuting costs.
The college issued a statement saying it complies with “all laws, including anti-discrimination laws applicable to student housing. Our housing policy is applied equally to all applicants for student housing without regard to their sexual orientation.”
It received immediate support from the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America. The chairman of its Institute for Public Affairs, Richard Stone, said the suit asks the college to “sacrifice its religious values — values protected by the U.S. Constitution — that preclude offering housing to unmarried couples, irrespective of their sexual orientation. This is wrongheaded and the lawsuit should be withdrawn.”
The executive director of the American Jewish Congress, Phil Baum, said he too did not see the college’s policy as discrimination against homosexuals because “the only time non-students may live [in campus housing] is if they are married.” He said the suit seeks to compel Yeshiva University to “say a lesbian relationship has the same standing as a heterosexual marriage. The university is refusing to concede that, and I think it’s impossible for it to say it is tantamount to marriage.
“That is not to say the Yeshiva University has forbidden homosexual relationships among the student body,” he continued. “It has not. It has only said you have to be students to live in campus housing, with the only exception being for married couples.”
He added that no state in the nation recognizes homosexual marriages, and that he can understand “why the university would be reluctant to do that.”
Spokesmen for both the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee said this issue was not cut and dry and that their organizations needed time to study it.
The ACLU’s director of the Lesbian and Gay Rights Project, Matthew Coles, insisted that his organization was not attempting to get the school to recognize gay marriages at a time when the state refused to do so. Instead, he said, it was only seeking to compel the college to obey the law against discriminating against homosexuals in housing and employment on the basis of their marital status.
“We’re not saying that Yeshiva should treat this gay couple as a married couple, but we are saying that New York law says you will not penalize them,” said Coles.
He said that no other medical school in the city places restrictions on who can live in its housing units. All they say, said Coles, is that an apartment must go to a student and that he or she can live alone or select a roommate of his or her own choosing.
“Yeshiva polices and says whom you can’t live with,” he added, noting that the school stressed it was a secular institution when it applied for and received federal funding.
“This is another example of an Orthodox group hiding behind the law to justify their prejudice,” said Yolanda Potaskinski, president of Congregation Beth Simcaht Torah, New York’s gay and lesbian synagogue. “The city of New York recognizes the need for rights between hetero- and homosexual couples and so should other institutions.”
Levin, 26, said in a statement that because she was denied housing at the school with her partner of six years, Carla Richmond, the only acceptable housing she could find was in Brooklyn — a three-hour round-trip commute from Einstein’s Bronx campus. She said her studio apartment costs $825 a month compared with the $300 to $400 the university charges.
A third-year student, Levin, said she brought the suit only after realizing that the college was adamant in its decision.
“I [had] felt certain that the school would change its policy if I made a reasonable appeal, thinking that this is a medical school that has a history of embracing people who have been marginalized within medicine and society,” she said.
The issue is not a new one for the college. Scott Emmons, a professor in the department of molecular genetics and a member of the Einstein Association of Gays, Lesbians and Bisexuals, said he broached this issue to the Faculty Senate in 1989 and again in 1992. Each time, he said, the senate “directed the administration to provide equal benefits to same-sex domestic partners.” That included not only housing but health insurance and other benefits spouses derive, he said.
The issue was discussed again on Oct. 2, 1996, and the senate voted 47-0 with three abstentions to once again support the gay community regarding housing and other benefits, according to Dr. Richard Hays, speaker of the Faculty Senate.
He said he agreed that same-sex couples who have a “recognized, long and close relationship” should have the same benefits as married couples.