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Same-Sex Couple Settle Housing Discrimination Lawsuit Against St. Louis Retirement Community

Beverly Nance and Mary Walsh pose for a portrait at their home in Shrewsbury in August 2018.
File photo / Carolina Hidalgo
St. Louis Public Radio
Beverly Nance and Mary Walsh pose for a portrait at their home in Shrewsbury in August 2018.

A same-sex couple in St. Louis has settled a housing discrimination lawsuit against Sunset Hills-based retirement community Friendship Village.

Mary Walsh and Beverly Nance sued Friendship Village for sex discrimination in July 2018, after the faith-based facility rejected their housing application, citing its cohabitation policy that defines marriage as between “one man and one woman, as marriage is understood in the Bible.”

The American Civil Liberties Union and the National Center for Lesbian Rights — which filed the case on the couple’s behalf, along with St. Louis attorney Arlene Zarembka and civil rights law firm Relman Colfax — announced Tuesday evening that the lawsuit had been resolved.

“Housing is essential for everyone and can be a huge source of stress as we age,” National Center for Lesbian Rights senior staff attorney Julie Wilensky said in a statement. “No one should have to fear being turned away from a retirement community because they are LGBTQ.”

The women at the center of the landmark legal case, Walsh, 74, and Nance, 70, have been partners for more than four decades and were married in 2009.

They decided to sell their Shrewsbury home in 2016 and apply for a unit at Friendship Village, a continuing care retirement community that includes both assisted living and nursing facilities. They visited the 52-acre campus and met with the facility’s residence director, who offered to waive the $12,000 entrance fee.

A few days after the couple submitted an application and a deposit, Walsh received a phone call from the residence director, asking about the nature of her relationship with Nance.

Friendship Village senior-living community has a range of on-site housing options at its 52-acre facility, including independent units, assisted living and memory care.
Friendship Village
Friendship Village in Sunset Hills rejected a same-sex couple's application.

“I told her, ‘We’ve been married since 2009,’ and she said, ‘I’m going to have to call you back,’” Walsh recalled during an interview with St. Louis Public Radio. The facility rejected the application two days later and mailed the couple a copy of its cohabitation policy, which limits unit-sharing to parents and children, siblings and heterosexual married couples.

The couple took Friendship Village to federal court in 2018, arguing that the retirement facility had discriminated against them on the basis of sex. But U.S. District Judge Jean Hamilton dismissed the case in January 2019, writing in a memorandum, “the Court finds the claims boil down to those of discrimination based on sexual orientation rather than sex alone.”

Walsh and Nance appealed the decision — and in June, the U.S. Supreme Court jump-started the case, when it ruled in Bostock v. Clayton County that the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects LGBTQ employees from sex discrimination. The Supreme Court decision allowed the lawsuit against Friendship Village to be reinstated in District Court, where the two parties were able to reach a confidential settlement.

The settlement is a win for the LGBTQ community, said Zarembka, the couple’s attorney.

“Between this victory and the victory in the Supreme Court's decision in the Bostock case, the LGBTQ community has a lot more rights now to pursue lawsuits against entities that discriminate against them,” she said.

Walsh and Nance have since moved into an assisted living facility in the St. Louis area, Zarembka said. In a statement, Walsh called the experience “harrowing” and added that she and her wife “are relieved that this case is now behind us and that we have closure after our lives were thrown into chaos.”

A spokesperson for the law firm representing Friendship Village, Husch Blackwell, declined to comment on the settlement.

Follow Shahla on Twitter: @shahlafarzan

Shahla Farzan is a PhD ecologist and science podcast editor at American Public Media. She was previously a reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.