A lesbian couple is suing a senior living facility in Missouri after they say they were discriminated against because of their relationship.
Bev Nance, 68, and Mary Walsh, 72, claim that St. Louis’ Friendship Village violated the Fair Housing Act by denying their request for residence. On July 2016, the couple alleges Corporate Operations Director Michael Heselbarth sent them a letter stating saying their application “does not fall within the categories permitted by the long-standing policy of Friendship Village Sunset Hills.”
The “cohabitation policy” is guided by the belief that marriage is “the union of one man and one woman, as marriage is understood in the Bible,” according to a lawsuit filed Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri.
Nance and Walsh, who have been together for 37 years, say the refusal came as a surprise. After friends recommended the facility, the couple visited Friendship Village and had multiple conversations with staff, who were aware they are a couple. They put down a $2,000 deposit along with their application paperwork.
Since being refused residence, the pair says they have few other affordable options in the area.
“We’ve been together for nearly 40 years and have spent our lives in St. Louis,” Nance says in a statement. “We want to grow older here by each other’s side. We should not be prevented from accessing the housing and care we need.”
Attorneys representing the couple claim their story illustrates the challenges facing queer and trans people seeking housing — particularly LGBTQ Seniors.
“Mary and Bev were denied housing for one reason and one reason only — because they were married to each other rather than to men,” claims Julie Wilensky, a staff attorney at the National Center for Lesbian Rights, in a statement. “This is exactly the type of sex discrimination the Fair Housing Act prohibits.”
“Their story demonstrates the kind of exclusion and discrimination still facing same-sex couples of all ages,” she continues.
Of the estimated 1.5 million LGBTQ people in the U.S. over the age of 65, just one-fifth of those enrolled in long-term care facilities say they are open about their gender identity or sexual orientation to staff or other residents. Three-fifths of queer and trans seniors fear being refused housing or medical care because of their identity.
Those fears have not been assuaged by the current occupants of the White House. Last year the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced it would be rolling back data collection on LGBTQ older adults in federal surveys.
Although the Trump administration has pushed “religious freedom” policies allowing people of faith to deny housing and health care to LGBTQ people, Nance and Walsh’s case will likely hinge upon whether the Fair Housing Act applies to private residences like Friendship Village. Some say the law doesn’t.
Constitutional law professor Anders Walker tells the St. Louis Post Dispatch the couple is “probably out of luck.”
“When a private body doesn’t want to rent a room to you, for them, that’s freedom of association,” claims Walker, an associate dean at the St. Louis University School of Law. “They’re probably entitled to their deposit back.”
But other counsel who have joined the lawsuit believe the case could be a landmark victory in affirming the rights of LGBTQ couples to equal housing.
“Missouri seniors should not be subjected to the pain and discrimination faced by Mary and Bev,” claims ACLU of Missouri Legal Director Tony Rothert in a statement. “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.”
“By bringing this lawsuit, Mary and Bev will help ensure that other same-sex couples are not subjected to illegal housing discrimination,” adds Joseph Wardenski, an attorney at Relman, Dane, & Colfax.
Friendship Village has yet to dispute any claims made in the suit.
“We have just been made aware of a lawsuit that we have not yet seen and have not had an opportunity to review,” says management company FV Services in a statement released Wednesday. “This matter will be discussed with legal counsel and have no further comment at this time.”