Mary Walsh, 72, and Bev Nance, 68, were just looking for a new home where they could be surrounded by friends and could get some extra care if needed. But when they tried to become residents at the St. Louis-area Friendship Village senior living community, they were turned away because they’re married.
Now the two women are suing in federal court alleging discrimination based on sexual orientation, but it could be a tough case to win. The National Center for Lesbian Rights is representing the women.
After repeatedly visiting the retirement village and paying a $2,000 deposit, 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.”
Walsh and Nance say they visited a different retirement community and asked if it would be an issue and were assured it wouldn’t be.
“And 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,” Walsh told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “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.”
But Friendship Village’s website says it is a not-for-profit “guided by Biblical values, [we] continually serve the senior community with quality offerings that promote lifelong well-being.” The couple say they were told living together would violate their cohabitation policy that defines marriage as “the union of one man and one woman, as marriage is understood in the Bible.”
“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 NCLR Senior Staff Attorney Julie Wilensky. “Their story demonstrates the kind of exclusion and discrimination still facing same-sex couples of all ages.”
The women chose Friendship Village for financial reasons. The community offered care options they would need that weren’t available elsewhere without substantially extra costs.
“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,” local St. Louis attorney Arlene Zarembka said.
But some court watchers aren’t sure the case will survive because the retirement community is a private corporation and LGBTQ people aren’t protected from discrimination under federal law.
“My gut instinct is they’re probably out of luck,” Anders Walker, a constitutional law professor at St. Louis University, told the 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 village’s management company wouldn’t comment on the lawsuit other than to say they were aware of it.
“We have just been made aware of a lawsuit that we have not yet seen and have not had an opportunity to review,” a statement read. “This matter will be discussed with legal counsel and [we] have no further comment at this time.”