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Suit Against Yeshiva University Marks Latest Battle for Gay Rights

A discrimination lawsuit against Yeshiva University is shaping up to become the latest battle for gay and lesbian rights at the school.

Filed last week in New York State Supreme Court on behalf of two students at the school’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine and behalf of the Einstein Association of Gays, Lesbians and Bisexuals, the lawsuit charges discrimination in housing on the basis of marital status and sexual orientation.

Both Yeshiva University and its medical school are named in the lawsuit, which is one of the first such cases in the country to claim unequal access to married-student housing, according to legal experts.

Einstein offers housing to all single students and to married students, their spouses and children. Students with same-sex partners do not have access to married-student housing because they cannot legally marry, according to the school’s policy.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit, Sara Levin, 26, and Maggie Jones, 23, claim that because they could not share on-campus housing with their respective long-term partners, they were forced to find more expensive apartments far from Einstein’s Bronx, N.Y., campus.

They are suing for a reversal of Einstein’s housing policy, which is set by Y.U., damages for emotional distress and extra housing and commuting costs.

But Scott Emmons, a professor at Einstein and a faculty advocate for the school’s gay association, said that beyond the lawsuit, the group is looking at the case as a bellwether for the school’s policies toward homosexuals.

“We will not accept anything less than a statement in the school’s literature” that ensures equal benefits to all students regardless of sexual orientation, including benefits for domestic partners, Emmons said in a telephone interview.

The current lawsuit is not the first controversy concerning gay and lesbian life at Y.U., which despite its Orthodox roots, is a non-sectarian institution — with the exception of its rabbinical school.

In 1994, controversy erupted over the presence of gay and lesbian student groups on Yeshiva’s campuses, with vehement opposition voiced by Orthodox students and faculty, who cited religious objections to homosexuality.

At that time, Y.U. reiterated its secular status; in compliance with New York City human rights law, officials said, it had no choice but to allow the groups as a recognized part of student activities.

Responding to the current lawsuit, Y.U. issued a brief statement saying that its housing policy “is applied equally to all applicants for student housing without regard to their sexual orientation.”

But the lawsuit claims that the housing policy has a “disparate impact” on gay and lesbian students with regard to married-student housing.

At a June 24 news conference, Levin, one of the plaintiffs, said she was told the school did not and would not honor domestic partnerships.

“I felt certain that the school would change its policy if I made a reasonable appeal,” she said, “thinking that this is a medical school that has a history of embracing peoples who have been marginalized within medicine and society.”

Y.U. officials refused to answer questions relating to the case, on the advice of lawyers.

In a telephone interview, Dr. Richard Hays, the speaker of Einstein’s faculty- student senate, also declined to comment on the lawsuit, but did refer to a senate resolution passed on Oct. 2, 1996, after the legislative body first heard Levin’s complaint.

That resolution reaffirmed previous requests that Y.U.’s administration change its “policy of denying benefits to the same-sex domestic partners of members of our community.”

Previous senate resolutions, the document said, had been “consistently ignored.”

Unable to resolve the issue on their own, Levin and Jones took their case last year to the American Civil Liberties Union.

“They had done everything they could,” said Matthew Coles, one of the ACLU lawyers for the plaintiffs, adding that subsequent meetings with Y.U.’s administration were unproductive.

“We explained the law to them. They thought we were wrong,” he said in an interview.

Y.U. is expected to file its first response to the students’ lawsuit within the next three weeks.

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