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Interfaith Center Chaplains File Complaint to Attorney General

Unsigned document shows petition to lift deed restriction

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The status of a decades-old provision restricting owners from repurposing Interfaith Center property is unclear, leaving some vigilant over the building’s future.

An unsigned document recently passed down to interfaith chaplains shows an agreement between John Holt-Harris III, whose father 30 years ago granted land to the IFC, and the University at Albany Foundation to ax a provision in the property’s deed. The 1987 provision restricts the property from being used for purposes astray from the Center’s faith-based mission.

It’s uncertain if the document has been signed.

In response to the document, the chaplains — Rev. Sandy Damhof, Cathy Reid, and Rabbi Nomi Manon — filed a complaint to state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. All religious property transfers must be reviewed by the attorney general.

The 1.4-acre property, currently under legal review, was sold to the UAlbany Foundation last fall. The Foundation plans on donating it to the university through SUNY Central procedures.

Thomas Simcoe, chair of the IFC Board, believes the petition may be difficult to move through the attorney general’s office, delaying the transfer. As a heir, Holt-Harris may not yield authority needed to lift the restrictive agreement, Simcoe claimed.

Within the last two weeks, the document was reportedly sent from the university to an IFC attorney present at the time of sale.

“The short answer is: just getting a signature on this deed is not necessarily going to have the legal effect that the university would like and the university knows that which is why they’re reaching out to us,” he said.

Seeking more information on the document, the Albany Student Press reached out to UAlbany administration and Foundation leadership. Due the property’s pending legal transfer, both declined to comment.

UAlbany officials have underscored that the land’s future use is uncertain. As stated in a frequently-asked-questions page on the university website, future occupancy will be determined based on campus space needs.

During negotiations, Simcoe said that he was unaware of any plans to repurpose the Center. Since the sale, he believes Student Affairs should’ve communicated more directly with students about IFC plans.

Michael Christakis, vice president of Student Affairs, told the Times Union last month that the lack of communication between faith groups and the IFC Board has been disappointing.

During sale negotiations with the IFC Board last year, Christakis said that the university made clear no commitment to keeping the building as is. There were only assurances to locate space for IFC chaplains elsewhere on campus.

There were rumors last spring the building would be repurposed, prompting Newman Catholic Association to log IFC usage. Reid has claimed that Christakis assured her in a meeting that the Center would remain for interfaith purposes. Christakis has disputed her claim, stating he told her that there would be interfaith programming space on campus.

“The time to save the Center isn’t, in my opinion and we’re all going to see this differently, is not today,” he said at a senate meeting two weeks ago. “It was 12 or 8 months ago when the Center actually could be saved, when the sale was about to occur.”

With renovations ahead, interfaith programming is expected to move out of the building and into the Campus Center by June.

The move has since stirred controversy among supporters of the IFC, prompting social media uproar under the hashtag “#SavetheInterfaithCenter and the creation of a roughly 40-manned groupchat of faith groups.

Supporters argue that Campus Center space is insufficient to hold IFC programming and house chaplains. For administration, the space is more accessible to students and easier to provide support services.

Christakis has held listening groups with faith organizations and campus chaplains to discuss the coming interfaith move. Damhof lauds administration for holding listening groups, but doesn’t believe it’s enough.

“In essence, we’re just negotiating for space in the Campus Center which our original intent was that’s not what we want,” said Damhof. “You can’t recreate that space in the Campus Center.”

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Tyler A. McNeil is the current managing editor for the Albany Student Press. The Capital Region native previously served as managing editor for The Hudsonian, and as an intern for the Times Union and Capital Tonight.

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