Four Gay Council Members Push Subsidy for Anti-Gay Schools

Councilmembers Daniel Dromm and Rosie Mendez are alone among the LGBT caucus in opposing the religious and other private school funding measure. | DONNA ACETO

Councilmembers Daniel Dromm and Rosie Mendez are alone among the LGBT caucus in opposing the religious and other private school funding measure. | DONNA ACETO

Four out gay members of the City Council are siding with anti-gay lobbyists in their quest to secure tens, perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars in city funds to pay for school safety officers in religious and other private schools, despite the fact that many of them teach that homosexuality is immoral and do not allow out gay or lesbian teachers.

Public education, civil liberties, and LGBT advocates are blasting the bill — as well as a state legislative proposal to give tax credits to private school donors — as tax-giveaway boondoggles at a time when public schools and libraries are starved for resources.

Among the 46 co-sponsors of the bill, Intro 65, are Majority Leader Jimmy Van Bramer of Queens and Councilmembers Corey Johnson of Manhattan, Carlos Menchaca of Brooklyn, and Ritchie Torres of the Bronx.

Van Bramer, Johnson, Menchaca, Torres support city funding for security guards at religious institutions

The bill’s few opponents include out Councilmembers Daniel Dromm of Queens, who chairs the Education Committee, and Rosie Mendez of Manhattan. Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito is also not co-sponsoring, and the de Blasio administration testified against it at an April 14 hearing, saying the police department should decide when and where to assign security officers in schools.

The bill’s chief sponsor is Brooklyn Councilmember David Greenfield, who is also the “volunteer” director and counsel for TEACH NYS, which “advocates on behalf of the 500,000 Catholic, Jewish, and Independent school children in New York State,” according to his Council web page. Greenfield touts his success in enacting legislation recently “that provides for $600 million in tax credits for parents of all school-age children in New York.”

“Public schools have to come first,” Dromm argued in opposition to Greenfield’s proposal. “We are supposed to have separation of church and state. Where does this city funding for private schools end?”

At his committee’s April 14 hearing, Dromm said the potential annual price tag of the bill could be $250 million, while Greenfield’s office said the Council’s estimate is $50 million.

Currently, safety officers are deployed at the discretion of the NYPD, not the demand of individual schools. The legislation would create a new entitlement for any private or religious school — as well as any public school — that requested safety staffing.

“Bias crimes against the religious community are on the rise,” Greeenfield wrote in an email to Gay City News, citing “the recent stabbing of a yeshiva student at 770 Eastern Parkway” in Brooklyn and “the four Jewish students that were killed by terrorists in Toulouse, France.”

Dromm said that safety officers are responsible for internal order in schools, not protection from terrorist threats, which is provided by police based on specific evidence it obtains. But Becky Stern, a spokesperson for Greenfield, said, “The NYPD in their testimony and questioning agreed that the primary job of a school safety officer is to prevent the wrong people from entering a building.”

“Regardless of a parent’s religious belief, the child is entitled to a very basic level of protection,” Greenfield wrote. “That is why, for example, the city already pays for services such as transportation and nursing that keep all of our children safe.”

Asked about the limits of what tax dollars would be used for, Stern wrote that is “the job of the legislature to decide these issues on a case-by-case basis. We do that every day. In this case, there is very clearly a need for security for children.”

Saying the issue “has nothing to do with politics,” Van Bramer argued, “We want to make sure that all children are safe at all schools.” Asked whether he is concerned that some of the schools have an anti-gay mission or message, he responded, “It’s about the safety of the children who go to them,” but he declined to say whether that overriding concern would trump evidence that a school were racist or anti-Semitic.

Torres similarly defended his sponsorship of the bill.

“I deeply detest the anti-gay beliefs of religious schools, but why should that mean that the students attending these schools receive no guarantee of school safety at all?,” he said. “School safety is a basic public good, and the students of all schools, be it public or private, are entitled to a minimal standard of public protection.” He also ducked a question about whether the same would hold true for a school with a record of other kinds of discrimination.

At the Education Committee hearing, Dromm pressed witnesses on whether their religious schools would discriminate against safety officers who were openly gay. At first, the witnesses invoked their religious exemption under city human rights law, even though that exemption is limited to those carrying out religious functions and does not apply to support personnel. One witness finally conceded that the officers would be employees of the NYPD and could be openly gay.

Among the lead advocates of the bill are the Catholic Community Relations Council, the political arm of the Archdiocese of New York, and Agudath Israel, representing the Orthodox Jewish community — both of which have vociferously fought advances in LGBT rights in Albany and at City Hall for decades. Agudath Israel is currently lobbying against passage of the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act and a ban on licensed mental health professionals providing so-called “conversion therapy” for minors, both measures pending in the State Legislature.

David Tanenbaum, testifying for Greenfield’s Council bill on behalf of Agudath Israel, said his group’s survey of a sampling of Jewish schools found “the vast majority” would be interested.

Religiously-affiliated organizations such as Catholic Charities currently receive millions in city contracts to provide social services, but they are required to sign stipulations they will not discriminate on the categories protected in city law — including sexual orientation and gender identity — in either hiring or the provision of services. Religious schools do not certify that they are not discriminatory and have availed themselves of existing religious exemptions.

Many on the Council — and certainly the six members of its LGBT caucus — have opposed city funding for the Boy Scouts, because of that group’s discriminatory policies, but most are apparently indifferent when it comes to public support of discriminatory religious and educational organizations.

The New York Civil Liberties Union testified against the Council bill, saying the group “is strongly opposed to the use of government funding and services to support religion, including religious schools. This is an inappropriate use of city resources, and skirts dangerously close to government sponsorship of religion, forbidden by the First Amendment to the US Constitution.”

The Greenfield school safety officer initiative emerges as Cardinal Timothy Dolan and other religious leaders are pushing in Albany for state tax credits for giving to private and religious schools. Out gay State Senator Brad Hoylman, a West Side Democrat, calling the tax credit scheme “unprecedented,” warned it would divert “essential resources from public schools” by creating incentives for wealthy individuals and corporations to provide funds to religious and other private schools. The State Senate passed a version of the bill, but it was not included in the budget deal agreed to by Governor Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders.

Assemblymember Dick Gottfried, a Chelsea Democrat, is also opposed to the tax credit proposal and predicted the Assembly would not bring such a measure up for a floor vote.

Hoylman said he also opposes the Council initiative to fund security officers for private schools.

“As a public official, we have to stay focused on taxpayer dollars funding public schools,” he said. “There are shortages of security officers in the public schools.”

Testimony from the NYPD before Dromm’s Education Committee made clear that the issue is not about providing security resources when specific threats are identified. Assistant Chief Brian J. Conroy, the commanding officer of the School Safety Division, testified against the bill, saying that while its intent was “understandable,” it “undermines the normal budget process.”

He also said, “If legislation requires that the commissioner deploy particular staff to particular locations and if this type of legislation serves as a model for other similar initiatives… the jobs of both the police commissioner and the mayor would be deeply compromised, potentially compromising public safety as well.

The UJA-Federation issued a statement saying, “Every child in New York City deserves to be safe while in school. Introduction 65 has the support of over 90 percent of the New York City Council, and of UJA-Federation, because of its intention to improve security at schools.”

UJA, however, refused to answer any questions about the de Blasio administration and NYPD’s problems with the bill or whether there are limits on the public funding of private, discriminatory schools.

Councilmember Mendez said basic student safety is the responsibility of the private or religious schools themselves.

“They charge tuition, they should pay for their own security,” she said. “I was against having churches in schools. There should be separation of church and state. As a member of the LGBT community, I know that a lot of these schools discriminate against us and if they city is going to provide any kind of funding, the schools should not be discriminatory.”

Councilmembers Johnson and Menchaca did not respond to repeated requests from Gay City News asking for their thinking on the bill they are co-sponsoring.

Allen Roskoff, president of the LGBT Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, strongly opposes the tax giveaway.

“Religious institutions pushing this bill have a long history and present-day reality of discriminating against the gay community,” he said. “Why should they be able to discriminate on our dime? Where is the concern for the safety of LGBT students and staff in these anti-gay religious schools? These Council members say they care about anti-gay bullying. How is a child being told by religious leaders that he or she is immoral for being gay not bullying?”

Gay civil libertarian Bill Dobbs said, “Religious freedom does not mean socking overburdened taxpayers for special treatment worth hundreds of millions. Religious freedom means don’t disturb religion, it doesn’t mean you throw your wallet their way.”

The United Federation of Teachers is lobbying against the tax credit measure in Albany but has not taken a position on the Council bill.

However, Class Size Matters, a public school advocacy group, has taken on the Greenfield bill.

“Our public schools are starved for resources,” said Leonie Haimson, the group’s executive director. “We are at 15-year high in terms of class size. More and more taxpayer money is being diverted to parochial, private, and charter schools.”

The funds at issue, she said, could better be used to augment “the school capital plan, relieve overcrowding, and begin to reduce class size. I see no evidence that there is a threat to these students. Surely they can afford to pay for their own security.”

Harvey Robins, a former director of operations for the city, said, “For what the Council wants to spend on this, they could open libraries seven days a week — and the last one to do that was Mayor LaGuardia during the Great Depression.”

Editor's Note: As originally posted, this story incorrectly reported that the Catholic Community Relations Council is lobbying in Albany against GENDA and a ban on conversion therapy for minors. Only Agudath Israel is. The Catholic Conference, representing Catholic bishops, neither supports nor opposes these bills at present, according to Dennis Proust, executive director of the Conference, which lobbied against same-sex marriage and the 2002 gay rights law. Nathan Schaefer, executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, said, “We have had some encouraging conversations with the Catholic Conference, but we don't know yet” whether it will come out with positions on the bills. The Catholic Conference is pushing for “comprehensive religious liberty protections” that would allow its state-funded hospitals and adoption agencies not to recognize “same-sex 'marriage'” ( putting the word marriage in quotes), among other things.