Married lesbian couple sue for discrimination after being denied senior housing

Mary Walsh and her wife Beverly Nance applied for housing at Friendship Village Sunset Hills just outside of St. Louis and were denied – even though they were legally married and had been in a committed relationship for 40 years. Now the couple is speaking out so that others don’t have to suffer the same indignities.

“We’d met other people from the community, and they were very friendly,” Walsh, 72, told the New York Times. “I was feeling good about it.”

That was until they applied and were refused on religious grounds.

Friendship Village Sunset Hills is a “a faith-based but nondenominational nonprofit” offering independent living complete with a calendar of activities, a pool, fitness center, and other desirable amenities.

One added bonus for the couple’s consideration was the ease and ability of one day switching from independent living to assisted living. There was even a nursing home on the 52-acre campus. This was desirable for the two because if one of them should happen to need additional assistance, they would still be able to have dinner together in the evenings.

“We wanted to be together, no matter what happened,” Walsh recalled.

However, what followed was a rude awakening.

The couple recalled that at first it seemed like the complex invited them to be a part of their exclusive community, even offering a diminished entry fee to sign immediately. Walsh and Nance, 68, put $2,000 down to secure their spot in a $235,000 two-bedroom unit, only to have the door slammed in their faces when they told the staff they were in a committed relationship.

The residence director called Walsh to ask about the nature of her relationship with Nance.

“I said, ‘We’ve been married since 2009,’” Walsh replied. “She said, ‘I’m going to need to call you back.’”

The ladies then received paperwork in the mail citing Friendship Village’s policy on cohabitation, which limits shared units to siblings, parents and children, or spouses.

“The term ‘marriage’ as used in this policy means the union of one man and one woman, as marriage is understood in the Bible,” the policy stipulated.

Walsh and Nance filed a federal lawsuit last month to bring charges against the facility. They did so on the basis of sex discrimination in violation of the federal Fair Housing Act and the Missouri Human Rights Act.

“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 (NCLR) Senior Staff Attorney Julie Wilensky. “Their story demonstrates the kind of exclusion and discrimination still facing same-sex couples of all ages.”

“Missouri seniors should not be subjected to the pain and discrimination faced by Mary and Bev,” said ACLU of Missouri Legal Director Tony Rothert. “Mary and Bev were financially and otherwise qualified for residency in the Friendship Village community. Their exclusion from this community is the result of discrimination alone.”

“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,” said local St. Louis attorney Arlene Zarembka.

“We’ve been together for nearly 40 years and have spent our lives in St. Louis. We want to grow older here by each other’s side,” said Walsh. “We should not be prevented from accessing the housing and care we need.”

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