NEW YORK, April 17 (JTA) – In a case that could have implications for other universities and institutions, gay medical students are returning to court next week to challenge Yeshiva University’s policy of barring gay couples from its married student housing.
Yeshiva University has argued that its policy is not discriminatory because it applies equally to unmarried heterosexual couples as it does to gay couples, who cannot legally marry. It has won the last two rounds in court.
The New York State Supreme Court sided with the Bronx-based medical school in 1999, stating in its opinion that the plaintiff’s real dispute was not with Yeshiva University but with a state legislature that does not sanction same-sex marriages.
The students’ appeal to the appellate division of the New York State Supreme Court was denied last year.
However, New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer backed the plaintiffs, and asked the New York Court of Appeals – New York state’s highest court – to hear the case.
The court agreed and will hear the students’ appeal on April 25 in Albany. It is not expected to rule on the matter for several months.
The plaintiffs’ case is being argued by the American Civil Liberties Union and has the support of numerous Jewish and non-Jewish organizations.
Among the Jewish organizations filing friend of the court briefs are the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the National Council of Jewish Women, and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice.
In addition, several civil rights groups – including the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Asian American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Educational Fund – collectively filed an amicus brief supporting the plaintiffs.
Gay and lesbian students are eligible for Yeshiva University housing, but their nonstudent partners are not. The students had claimed that requiring a marriage certificate for nonstudent partners is discriminatory because homosexual couples can not legally marry.
According to the ACLU and its backers, the housing policy violates city laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and state laws that ban discrimination on the basis of marital status.
Because gay couples cannot marry, they argue, the policy has a “disparate impact” on them.
According to the memo issued by the civil rights groups, “facially neutral practices that disproportionately deny opportunities to members of a protected class” are unlawful.
Yeshiva University officials and their attorneys declined to comment on the case. No organizations are filing briefs on Yeshiva University’s behalf.
Yeshiva University is generally perceived as an Orthodox Jewish institution. It was founded under Jewish auspices, runs Jewish undergraduate colleges and a rabbinical school, and its president, Norman Lamm, is an Orthodox rabbi.
However, Yeshiva University’s graduate schools, including the Albert Einstein College of Medicine where the plaintiffs are enrolled, are nonsectarian and receive government funds – and thus must comply with all anti- discrimination laws.
At times, the nonsectarian status has put Yeshiva University in conflict with the religious sensibilities of Orthodox alumni and donors. In the mid- 1990s, the university refused demands from some donors, alumni and others in the university community to ban gay student groups at the medical and law schools.
According to the ACLU, American universities are almost evenly split between those that offer housing to same-sex couples and those that do not.
Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Columbia, for example, offer housing to same-sex couples, while the College of William and Mary, University of California at Berkeley and University of Rochester do not.
The case against Yeshiva University’s medical school initially was brought in 1998 by two lesbian medical students and the medical school’s gay and lesbian organization. During the course of the case, one of the students broke up with her partner, and the other graduated.