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Married lesbian couple say they were denied housing in retirement community

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Friendship Villages

A married lesbian couple has filed a lawsuit against a St. Louis retirement home who they say denied them residency due to their sexual orientation. They have filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court on Wednesday. 

According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Mary Walsh, 72, and Bev Nance, 68, say Friendship Village senior living community denied them tenancy because of the company's definition of marriage. 

The lawsuit states that the women did not meet with the housing "Cohabitation policy" which only recognizes “the union of one man and one woman, as marriage is understood in the Bible."

This case may be the first to spark a legal fight over sex discrimination, LGBT rights, and religious freedoms. The Friendship Village website also says it is not-for-profit.

Friendship Village is accused of violating the state's Fair Housing Act and the Missouri Human Rights Act. The women have already acquired representation from some of the nation's biggest human rights legal organizations such as the National Center for Lesbian Rights, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Washington-based firm Relman, Dane & Colfax.

“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,” Julie Wilensky, a lawyer for the center, said in a news release. “Their story demonstrates the kind of exclusion and discrimination still facing same-sex couples of all ages.”

Friendship Village's FV Services responded to the lawsuit on Wednesday, saying in a statement, “We have just been made aware of a lawsuit that we have not yet seen and have not had an opportunity to review. This matter will be discussed with legal counsel and (we) have no further comment at this time.”

Walsh says that she and her wife looked at other senior homes in the area and they raised the same-sex question to them but were met with acceptance, "‘Well, this has all been resolved with the Marriage Act, isn’t this great.’" Walsh recalls thinking. "So when we visited Friendship Village on several occasions, I never asked the question.”

They had tried to move into the Friendship Village in 2016, but it was at capacity, so they were put on a waiting list doling out a $2,000 retainer to reserve a spot. Later they were told they couldn't move in because of the company's anti-same-sex co-habitation policy. 

“Your request to share a single unit does not fall within the categories permitted by the long-standing policy of Friendship Village Sunset Hills," said Michael Heselbarth, a facility administrator in a letter dated on July 29, 2016.

Despite the lawsuit, the retirement facility may be able to deny the couple housing legally since they are a private company, and same-sex couples are not protected by federal law. 

The federal Fair Housing Act states:

The Fair Housing Act does not specifically include sexual orientation and gender identity as prohibited bases. However, discrimination against a lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) person may be covered by the Fair Housing Act if it is based on non-conformity with gender stereotypes.  For example, if a housing provider refuses to rent to an LGBT person because he believes the person acts in a manner that does not conform to his notion of how a person of a particular sex should act, the person may pursue the matter as a violation of the Fair Housing Act’s prohibition of sex.

"My gut instinct is they’re probably out of luck,” said Anders Walker, a constitutional law professor at St. Louis University. “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.”

Elizabeth Sepper, a Washington University law professor has a somewhat better outlook, “I think (the couple) have 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.”

This past May San Diego opened its doors to one of the nation's only all-inclusive LGBT senior living facilities. This is an effort to protect people from discrimination not only by housing administrators and companies but religious caregivers who may treat LGBT residents differently than straight ones.

"This new development is open to all and provides a positive and supportive environment for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender seniors; a first for San Diego and one of only a handful in the nation,” said San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer at the time.