When Mary Walsh, 72, and Bev Nance, 68 applied to be residents at Friendship Village, a senior living community in St. Louis, they were rejected because they were married, reports the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
The couple, who had been together for nearly four decades, repeatedly visited the village and even dropped a $2,000 deposit. Their plans to move were cut short when an administrator sent them a letter that said, “Your request to share a single unit does not fall within the categories permitted by the long-standing policy of Friendship Village Sunset Hills.”
In response, the National Center for Lesbian Rights and American Civil Liberties Union is representing the women in a federal court case that alleges the community discriminated against them based on their sexual orientation.
In the suit, Walsh and Nance claim that Friendship Village's cohabitation policy that defines marriage as “the union of one man and one woman, as marriage is understood in the Bible,” violates the Fair Housing Act.
Walsh says that when she asked if two married women sharing a unit would be an issue while touring another community, "the guy looked at me like I had three heads and said, ‘No, we don’t have any problem at all.' He looked at me so strangely I never asked the question again." Afterward, “I thought, ‘Well, this has all been resolved with the Marriage Act, isn’t this great.’ So when we visited Friendship Village on several occasions, I never asked the question," she told St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
The couple ended up choosing Friendship Village because it was the only community that offered the care options they required for the costs they could afford.
“Mary and Bev were denied housing for one reason and one reason only — because they were married to each other rather than to men. This is exactly the type of sex discrimination the Fair Housing Act prohibits,” said National Center for Lesbian Rights lawyer Julie Wilensky in a press release. “Their story demonstrates the kind of exclusion and discrimination still facing same-sex couples of all ages.”
“Friendship Village maintains and enforces a written policy rejecting all same-sex couples who apply for admission to Friendship Village. This is discrimination, plain and simple. Friendship Village’s policy harms the many same-sex senior couples living in the St. Louis Metro area,” Arlene Zarembka, a local St. Louis attorney said.
Other legal professionals do not believe the laws will defend the Walsh and Nance from the discrimination they faced.
“My gut instinct is they’re probably out of luck,” said Anders Walker, who teaches constitutional law at St. Louis University told Post-Dispatch. “When a private body doesn’t want to rent a room to you, for them, that’s freedom of association. They’re probably entitled to their deposit back.”
The case has the potential to redefine the Fair Housing Law; if the couple wins it can expand the anti-discrimination law to defend people on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity.
Elizabeth Sepper, a Washington University law professor, called the lawsuit "a strong case, but it’s not a slam dunk by any means.”
“Hopefully, this case will continue the trend of telling religious objectors that if they want to operate in the commercial markets, they have to play by the same rules as everyone else," she asserted to Post-Dispatch.
“All this stuff just keeps coming at you, and then you’re in your 70s, and you think it’s going to be easy from now on and then you face this kind of prejudice,” explained Nance. “In my mind, the time has come for this to be corrected.”