After a four-year battle to maintain control over who can share living quarters at its Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Yeshiva University quietly changed its policy this month, avoiding a trial in the lawsuit brought by lesbian students who claimed discrimination.
Under the previous policy, unmarried couples were allowed to share housing only if both parties were students at the college.
But the university is unclear about whether its new liberal policy (which allows students to room with anyone with whom they have an "interdependent" and "long-term" relationship) will extend to all its campuses.
"No one has asked us thus far," said Peter Ferrara, a university spokesman. "No one at Cardozo has made the kind of request that was made at Einstein," he said, referring to YU’s Benjamin Cardozo Law School.
In addition to Einstein and Cardozo, YU has 15 other affiliated institutions on four campuses. They include Stern College for Women, Yeshiva College, Sy Syms School of Business, Wurzweiler School of Social Work and the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, among others. Nearly half of the combined annual enrollment of 6,500 are housed by the university.
If other students request to room with a non-student other than a spouse, "I’m sure our dealings will be as equitable as possible," said Ferrara.
The lawsuit by Maggie Jones and Sara Levin, who each wanted to room with partners not enrolled at the college, had been dismissed by two New York courts, but was reinstated by the state’s Court of Appeals last July.
Ferrara declined to say why the university changed its policy now, or whether its lawyers had assessed that it was a losing battle.
But the change represents a sharp reversal for the 116-year-old university, which had maintained that the housing rule was not discriminatory because it applied to unmarried heterosexual pairs as well as gay couples. The lower courts agreed, although state Attorney Gen eral Eliot Spitzer sided with the plaintiffs, saying the policy had a "disparate impact" on gay couples who are legally unable to marry.
There was speculation that the university, which has struggled for an image that balances modernity with strict halachic compliance, would continue the battle to its conclusion.
Instead, Yeshiva amended its policy to allow non-students to reside in Einstein housing, "including a spouse and dependent children or any other person with whom the student maintains a genuine close and interdependent relationship that is, or is intended to be long-term," according to an excerpt from a draft of the policy read by Ferrara on the phone. He declined to make the draft available to The Jewish Week.
The suit has not been dropped, and lawyers for both sides said they were discussing how much compensation, if any, would be awarded the plaintiffs.
"We are hoping to resolve the case short of litigation," said James Essecks of the American Civil Liberties Union, who represented Jones and Levin. Both women have completed their studies at the university. "There were out-of-pocket costs for housing and commuting, and extra books. They didn’t have access to the library because they were living two boroughs away."
But Yeshiva’s lawyer, Mark Jacoby, said he anticipated a quick end to the suit, which has been a public relations albatross for the university.
"The gist of what they were looking for is moot because of the change in policy," said Jacoby. "I don’t anticipate that the lawsuit will continue."
Jacoby said the change of policy came because, "The college believed its mission is to train medical students and that the diversion of students and administration from that mission in a lawsuit is not something that was desirable."
Harvey Blitz, president of the Orthodox Union, which filed a brief in support of YU, said he was disappointed by the development.
"They should have litigated this to a conclusion," said Blitz. "The position they took originally was correct and they should have defended that position…."
But Blitz, an attorney, said he understood that YU’s lawyers may have viewed the case as unwinnable. The OU believes that accommodating gay couples amounts to "promotion of the gay and lesbian lifestyle," which is "inconsistent with Orthodox Jewish principles" and that the new policy eliminates marriage as "a legally recognizable standard," said Blitz.
But Essecks, the ACLU lawyer, said the new policy is "a broad, general policy that recognizes that you don’t have to draw a line solely at marriage [and] you can have a more humane policy that recognizes the full diversity of students."