Yeshiva University is enmeshed in its own battle over gay and lesbian couples less than a month after the Reform movement affirmed the right of its rabbis to officiate at same-gender commitment ceremonies.
Two lesbian students and a gay-lesbian-bisexual student group are suing Yeshiva University’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York for barring same-sex couples from living in its subsidized, on-campus married-student housing.
Gay and lesbian students at the university, like other students, are eligible for university housing, but their partners, who are not enrolled in the school, are not eligible for housing. While Yeshiva University is officially a nonsectarian institution except for its Orthodox rabbinical school, it is the oldest and largest American university under Jewish auspices.
According to Orthodox interpretation, Jewish law strongly prohibits homosexual relationships, and Orthodox leaders have been outspoken in condemning the Reform rabbis’ recent resolution on same-sex unions. Although the case was dismissed in New York’s Supreme Court on March 15, 1999, the students — backed by the American Civil Liberties Union — are appealing.
They had their first court hearing April 19 before a panel of judges in the New York Supreme Court’s Appellate Division. The students’ attorney, James Esseks, argued that by requiring students to present a marriage certificate in order to receive couples housing, the university’s policy results in an unequal treatment of homosexual couples who are unable to marry. Thus, he argued, it violates city and state human rights laws.
Yeshiva’s attorney, Mark Jacoby, said that the university has a limited amount of student housing available, and while it can provide housing to the children and spouses of students, it cannot “open that up to all people who want to live with a partner.”
He also noted that the university does not permit unmarried heterosexual partners to live together in university housing. Asked by one of the judges if the university would recognize a same-sex marriage certificate from a government that recognizes same-sex marriages, Jacoby said it would, but Esseks stated that no state or nation recognizes gay marriages. The Vermont Senate last week approved “civil unions” giving same-gender couples all the benefits of marriage under state law, but the vote recognized these unions only in Vermont.
The plaintiffs do not have legal domestic partnership agreements, and the university would not recognize it if they did. It is not clear when the judges will issue a ruling.
In dismissing the original case, the judge wrote, “Einstein is not responsible for the fact that gay and lesbian students are unable to provide the college with a marriage certificate that validates their relationship with their partner. The plaintiffs’ real complaint lies not with the defendants but, rather, with the refusal of the New York state legislature to sanction same-sex marriages.”
During last week’s hearing, the plaintiffs and about 15 friends sat quietly in the seats reserved for observers. One of the plaintiffs, fourth-year medical student Sara Levin, 26, held the hand of her partner, Carla Richmond.
The other plaintiffs are: third-year medical student Maggie Jones, who has broken up with her domestic partner since the case was dismissed last year; and Gila Wildfire, acting in her capacity as secretary of the Einstein Association of Gays, Lesbians and Bisexuals.
With Levin approaching graduation and Jones no longer with her partner, the case’s outcome will not affect them personally. Both said they are appealing nonetheless to help future students affected by the school’s housing policy.
“Cases like this will determine how any institution designs its policies, and I’ll be involved in lots of institutions as a doctor,” said Levin after the hearing, shortly before leaving to prepare for a Passover seder.
Although when she enrolled she knew university housing was restricted to students and their spouses, Levin said she had “assumed they would accept a domestic partnership.”
Richmond, a social worker who has been Levin’s partner for eight years, said the two have been living in Brooklyn — a lengthy commute — because they were unable to find safe, affordable housing close to the medical school’s Bronx campus.
“It’s been an additional stress on her in what’s already a stressful process,” Richmond said. “She’s had to make choices between being in an environment in which she has ready access and losing sleep because of having to commute, but having the support of a partner.”
The two met as undergraduates at Columbia University. Asked if they were united in a commitment ceremony, they said, “Not yet.”
Interviewed after the hearing, their lawyer said that other New York universities with married-student housing, such as Columbia, make those facilities available to gay couples. Yeshiva officials declined to comment on the case, but noted in a statement that the 1999 decision ruled that “our student housing policies are in full compliance with all anti-discrimination laws.”
Because the appeal is pending, “no further comment would be appropriate at that time,” adds the statement.
Although commonly thought of as an Orthodox institution, Yeshiva University has been chartered since 1969 as nonsectarian, enabling it to receive state and federal funding.
That nonsectarian status means it must abide by various anti-discrimination laws, forcing it at times to adopt policies offensive to the religious sensibilities of some of its alumni and donors. In the mid-1990s, it refused to ban gay student groups at Einstein and its law school, despite demands from some Orthodox students and alumni.