Often hailed as one of the most LGBTQA-friendly schools in the country, Ithaca College is now defending itself against a complaint of not doing enough to protect LGBTQA students from homophobia on its campus.
Senior Vanessa Zimmerman used to be immersed in the Ithaca College Protestant Community and even held an on-campus job at Muller Chapel, home to several religious organizations on campus. But for about a year Zimmerman and her girlfriend, Annalise Haldeman say they have been discriminated against and harassed by members of the Protestant community because of their sexual orientation, and that the school has not done enough to address it.
“The lawsuit was the last possible option, the last resort,” Zimmerman said. “Annalise and I have been pushing and pushing for a year and a half now in a variety of different ways.”
In October of 2017, Zimmerman and Haldeman announced that they were dating. The couple said that the next day Haldeman met with the Protestant chaplain on campus, James Touchton, to tell him about the relationship. Future actions by Touchton, as well as by the governing body of the Protestant Community and its members, would make Zimmerman and Haldeman leave the community feeling uncomfortable and unwelcome.
Zimmerman and Haldeman say they were verbally harassed and gossiped about by members of the Protestant Community. They were told in several ways, by past and current members of the community, that their relationship was a sin. When she approached the on-campus Title IX office she said she was told that since her complaint was not about sex or gender she could not file a complaint.
“At that time, that’s all I thought I could do,” Zimmerman said. “I didn’t even know I could go to a Title IX office that was off campus.”
The couple and several friends brought their concerns to the Ithaca College administration. The Protestant Community is run independently of the school but still receives funding from Ithaca College. On these grounds, Zimmerman argues that the school has a responsibility to make sure that third-party vendors on campus that provide services should adhere to the morals and standards of the school.
After meeting with members of the school’s administration and Touchton and discussing their concerns, Zimmerman said she and Haldeman stopped hearing from the administration. They gathered their friends and supporters again and created a group called IC Color. The group began circulating a petition that called for three things: they wanted the Protestant Community to stop receiving funding from the school until it adhered to the college’s mission and vision statements, wanted the administration to publish a plan of how it was going to address homophobia on campus, and reinstate the job that Zimmerman left at the chapel, with backpay, when she no longer felt safe working there. They hand-delivered over 2,000 signatures to Ithaca College President Shirley Collado and met with several members of the administration. At this meeting, they gave the administration a deadline of July 1 to meet their demands.
The school did not make any of the changes that IC Color demanded but did create a new administrative position to oversee the on-campus religious communities and the money allocated to those communities. Hierald Osorto was named as IC’s first Director of Religious and Spiritual Life in August of 2018. After their demands were not completely met Zimmerman decided to pursue action against the school through the Division of Human Rights, with both an employment discrimination and an education discrimination complaint.
“I was very disheartened by the inconsistency of the college and how quickly we were having these original meetings where they were stating ‘We’re sorry for the discrimination that occurred. We are taking this seriously. This falls on our campus, we’re responsible for religious communities.’ And the instant that I file a complaint with the Division of Human Rights I get their response back from a big law firm that’s now stating that my discrimination is alleged, that’s now saying they no longer have any responsibility of the Protestant Community, that it is a not-for-profit and is completely separate,” Zimmerman said.
Some of the reactions from people in the Protestant Community, Zimmerman said, accused her and Haldeman of infringing on religious freedom, specifically regarding their demand that the school no longer allocate money to the community, especially since there is no contract between the community and the school about how the money will be used.
“I think the biggest issue, too, is the Ithaca College Protestant Community operates like a student org, it’s primarily run by students, it has its own table at the org fair,” Zimmerman said. “I think the College, even in their arguments is very much trying to separate, ‘This is a church, we have no control over a church.’ Whereas, it’s not a church. It’s a student organization that the college is providing services – like staff, faculty, students, funding - to, and so it should be treated like any other student organization would.”
When asked who Tompkins Weekly could speak to about this situation, Ithaca College responded with the following statement: “A complaint has been filed with the New York State Division of Human Rights, and the college has filed its response with the agency. The college does not comment on legal proceedings, but it is important to note that the college takes all bias- and discrimination-related complaints seriously and investigates them thoroughly. The goal of the college is to build and sustain a culture rooted in full participation, equity, and inclusion.”
In its response, Ithaca College asserts that Zimmerman’s complaints are alleging discrimination from the Protestant Community, not the college. The college further asserts that Zimmerman’s complaint fails to establish that she was subject to a hostile work or educational environment based on her sexual orientation or sex.
After a complaint is filed with the Division of Human Rights, a copy of the complaint is sent to the party named in the complaint and the division will investigate. If it is found that the division has jurisdiction and there is probable cause to believe the complaint a public hearing will be set in front of an administrative law judge. If the division finds that it lacks jurisdiction or that probable cause does not exist, an order dismissing the allegations of the complaint will be made. According to the New York State Division of Human Rights website, “If in the judgment of the division the circumstances so warrant, it may, at any time after the filing of the complaint, endeavor to eliminate such unlawful discriminatory practice by conference, conciliation and persuasion.” In the case of such endeavors, the division does not disclose the agreement.
“We’re not trying to tear down the college,” Haldeman said. “We’re showing that there is an issue and that issue will continue, and if you’re not held accountable for it then you’re not doing anything.”
Currently, since the complaint was filed the school was given a chance to respond, Zimmerman was given a rebuttal to IC’s response, and everything is in the hands of the division as it investigates the situation.
According to what they are saying Ithaca College must end all religious organizations. I am A-OK with this!
The one thing most religions share is a hatred of gay people. For some reason basing your morals on things people wrote thousands of years ago makes you look dumb today.
Does Ithaca College now have to tell its Catholic Community to love gay people? Is Ithaca College's Jewish community uninviting to pig farmers?
These women are not victims. They are looking for victimhood.
They will lose this lawsuit, as it has no merit.
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