County Panel Says School Is Exempt From Bias Law
By ANDY NEWMAN, NYTimes
on the web, March 31, 2005
||Susan Farley for The New York Times
Joshua Sahara, a student at New York Medical College, is president of the gay support group that the school banned after he renamed it.
The Westchester County Human Rights Commission has said it does not have the authority to investigate the banning of a gay student group at New York Medical College.
The commission said that because the school, based in Valhalla, has ties to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, it is exempt from the county's antidiscrimination law.
The panel's finding, stated in a March 16 letter to the school, is the latest episode in the controversy that erupted last year when the school refused to recognize a student club called Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender People in Medicine.
Fallout from the school's decision continues, however. The county health department is considering severing ties to the college, as is Pace Law School, which runs a master's program in law and public health with the college.
And the ban has drawn fire from gay advocates.
"The fact that it's legal to discriminate doesn't make it right or smart," Joel Ginsberg, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Medical Association, a national group based in San Francisco, said yesterday.
"Pretty soon New York Medical College will be best known for its policy of discriminating against gay people."
The commission's letter, which was first reported yesterday in The Journal News of Westchester County, was also critical of the school.
"We strongly urge you to rethink your denial," the commission's executive director, Alison E. Greene, wrote, adding, "We sincerely hope that your inclusion of 'sexual orientation' in your 'Statement of Non-Discrimination' is not merely lip service, but a genuine statement that reflects a policy of treating all students fairly."
New York Medical College, which has 1,600 students, said in a statement in January that it opposed the club because it would "advocate and promote activities inconsistent with the values" of the college.
The college is run by a board appointed by a corporation whose members are in turn appointed by the Archbishop of New York, the archdiocese said.
In 1986, the school declared itself to be "in the Catholic tradition."
The school says that its curriculum includes cultural sensitivity training and thoroughly covers health issues of concern to sexual minorities.
Ms. Greene wrote that she had found more than a dozen Catholic colleges and universities that have officially recognized gay and lesbian student groups, including Fordham University in the Bronx and Iona College in New Rochelle.
"These institutions of higher learning have found a way not to discriminate against their gay and lesbian students while at the same time maintaining their mission to operate 'in the Catholic tradition,' " she wrote.
The banned club was originally known as the Student Support Group, and operated for several years under that name without incident.
Last fall, the group's president, Joshua Sahara, decided to rename the club Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender People in Medicine.
Mr. Sahara's plan for the year included starting a mentoring program at a gay and lesbian high school in Manhattan, 30 miles away, and shadowing doctors at a clinic for sexually transmitted diseases.
The school, after being informed of the name change, denied financing and meeting space for the club.
The school's general counsel, Waldemar A. Comas, said yesterday that the mentoring program "was probably one of the reasons" that the school banned the club.
"You're talking about that you would go out from here in the middle of the program and have a 'purely educational and mentoring' program for high school students that are gay and lesbian," he said.
"The question is how is that connected to the educational experience here?"
Mr. Comas said that the school was also concerned that the club would engage in activities that would conflict with the sexual privacy rights of students outside the group.
He declined to elaborate.
Mr. Sahara, a second-year student, is out of the country and could not be reached for comment yesterday.
In January, the Westchester County health commissioner, Dr. Joshua Lipsman, resigned from two volunteer teaching posts at the school to protest the ban.
The county offers internships to the school's students and research support for a study the college's school of public health is conducting on the health needs of immigrants.
Dr. Lipsman said that he and the Westchester County executive, Andrew J. Spano, who has also spoken against the ban, would decide within a few days whether to end those ties.