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by Margaret Reuter
Love and let love
(Feb '01) Sara Levin reached a life-time goal, admission to Albert Einstein Medical College at Yeshiva University. She was also in love. Her partner was proud. As she made arrangements to start school, she went to the college housing office to apply for campus housing.
Yeshiva provides below-market housing for its students, including married student housing for the spouses and children of its married students. Sara and her partner, Carla Richmond are not married. They are lesbians. Under New York State law, they cannot marry. They have celebrated their commitment to each other in a far less formalized way. Knowing that New York has some of the most progressive civil rights laws protecting against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and marital status, Sara applied for married student housing for herself and Carla. Yeshiva turned her down. She did not provide a marriage certificate as required by the university housing department, nor could she have. Yeshiva did offer Sara housing for herself.
Sara sued the university under the state and city human rights laws, arguing that the medical school discriminated against her illegally, and that their housing policies disparately disadvantaged gay and lesbian couples who could not obtain a marriage license no matter how much they loved and cared for each other.
Sara's claim has not been well received in court. In fact she has lost the first two rounds. But there is a bit of hope in the offing, more about that later. At the trial court level, Justice Franklin R. Weissburg found no such discrimination. He ruled that Sara was not mistreated--she was offered housing. It didn't matter to the university that she was lesbian. It didn't matter to the university what her marital status was. According to Justice Weissburg, the university's housing policy merely recognized the great legal and societal significance attached to the institution of marriage and Sara's dispute really lies with the State Legislature and its refusal to recognize same-sex marriages, not with Yeshiva University. The appellate court agreed.
The bit of hope lies in the State's highest court, the New York State Court of Appeals. They agreed to hear the case. Like the US Supreme Court, the New York Court of Appeals chooses which cases they will hear. A litigant's right to appeal is only to the first appellate level.
The main reason for hope is that in 1989, the Court of Appeals broke ground nationally in a case called Braschi v. Stahl Associates Company. That case concerned the rights of family members to remain in a rent-controlled apartment once the primary tenant died. The Court of Appeals ruled that the term "family" in the rent law should be read broadly and include homosexual partners whose relationship is long term and marked by emotional and financial commitment and interdependence. The trial court in Sara's case did not think the Braschi decision applied to the Yeshiva case. The trial court noted that the rent law at issue in Braschi used the term family, the Yeshiva housing rules only refer to married couples. Perhaps Sara's case will be the vehicle for the courts to acknowledge that sharing a home is one of the most fundamental desires of sincerely committed couples whether of the opposite sex or the same.
Meg Sounds Off:
It's time for same-sex marriages to be honored
It's high time New York State recognizes same-sex marriages. Most open-hearted folks would agree that where two people make a life time commitment to each other it is fair to afford them the same rights, privileges, and responsibilities that are afforded traditionally married couples. Housing and shelter rights, employee benefit rights, inheritance rights, and more. The list is really quite long once you start thinking about it.
Courts and various governmental agencies have decided that many rights and privileges should be extended to gay and lesbian families. But how to decide who is "committed" or not? Without the simple marriage license, the courts, the city, and its agencies are forced to set up an inquiry that is far too personal whether this gay couple or that lesbian couple are sufficiently committed to rank as "family" or "married"--how much do they hold themselves out as a couple, how much do they show mutual responsibility, how much are their finances intermingled, how long have they been together, how often they go to family functions together. Any heterosexual couple may marry without questioning their bona fides, without questioning the foolishness or shallowness of their commitment. Let's stay out of the business of making couples prove how much they treasure each other. Let them decided when and if to marry.
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