ST. LOUIS, Mo. — Two women who identify as lesbians have filed a federal lawsuit against a Christian retirement village for declining their application to live in the senior community due to its longstanding cohabitation policy that only allows married men and women or siblings to share a dwelling.
Attorneys for Mary Walsh and Bev Nance filed the lawsuit against Friendship Village in St. Louis on Wednesday, asserting that the non-profit entity engaged in unlawful discrimination.
According to the mission statement posted on Friendship Village’s website, the faith-based organization is “[g]uided by Biblical values,” and aims to “continually serve the senior community with quality offerings that promote lifelong well-being.” It states that it seeks to provide senior services that support “mind, body, and spirit.”
Walsh and Nance, who “married” each other in 2009 and have no religious affiliation, learned of the community through friends who live at Friendship Village and encouraged them to move there also. They said that they were drawn to the facility because of its social activities and its Life Care program.
The two subsequently visited Friendship Village and were provided a tour, along with informational brochures.
In July 2016, Walsh and Nance decided to move in to the retirement village. They met again with Residence Director Carmen Fronczak, signing a wait list agreement and submitting a down payment for a unit that Fronczak told them would be available shortly.
Walsh and Nance also contacted a realtor that same day to begin the process of selling their home.
Three days later, they received a call from Fronczak, who inquired about what relation Walsh was to Nance. Walsh advised that the two were “married” and that they had been together for 37 years.
Fronczak called back two days later to advise that Friendship Village could not accept their paperwork because of its policies, which adhere to the belief that marriage is between a man and a woman.
Lesbianism was an afterthought to both sides.
“It had not even occurred to the couple during their visits to Friendship Village to ask whether same-sex couples could live there, because Ms. Fronczak had been actively encouraging them to move there,” the lawsuit states.
“Ms. Walsh and Ms. Nance had not taken any steps to hide their relationship when they were touring Friendship Village and meeting with Ms. Fronczak, and the wait list agreement they signed showed that they lived at the same address.”
Walsh and Nance soon also received a letter from Corporate Operations Director Michael Heselbarth, who likewise advised that the women’s request to share a unit violated the retirement community’s longstanding cohabitation policy.
The policy states that Friendship Village “will permit the cohabitation of residents within a single unit only if those residents, while residing in said unit, are related as spouses by marriage, as parent and child or as siblings,” and specifically notes that “[t]he 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 also advises that the requirement is consistent with the entity’s “longstanding practice of operating its facilities in accordance with biblical principles and sincerely-held religious standards.”
The women consequently filed a complaint with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which conducted an investigation for a time until Walsh and Nance decided to file a lawsuit in federal court.
“By refusing housing to Ms. Nance and Ms. Walsh and by maintaining the written cohabitation policy, defendants, directly and through their representatives and agents, unlawfully discriminated and continue to discriminate against Ms. Walsh and Ms. Nance on the basis of sex,” the suit asserts.
“[E]ach Plaintiff was denied housing at Friendship Village because of her own sex (female) and because of the sex of her spouse (female), because if either Plaintiff had been a man married to a woman, they would not have been denied housing,” it states.
“Furthermore, Defendants denied Plaintiffs housing because they do not conform to traditional sex stereotypes, including that a married woman should be in a different-sex relationship; that a married woman’s spouse should be a man; and that women should be attracted to and form relationships with men, not women.”
Walsh and Nance are seeking a declaration that the policy violates the federal Fair Housing Act and the Missouri Human Rights Act, an injunction against the enforcement of the policy, and monetary damages—including punitive damages “in an amount sufficient to deter similar discriminatory conduct in the future.”
Anders Walker, a constitutional law professor at St. Louis University, told the St. Louis Post Dispatch that the women most likely will not succeed in their legal challenge because Friendship Village is a private entity.
“When a private body doesn’t want to rent a room to you, for them, that’s freedom of association,” he said. “They’re probably entitled to their deposit back.”
However, Washington University law professor Elizabeth Sepper stated that she hoped the 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.”
The late preacher and author A.W. Tozer once said, “There is no Christian victory or blessing if we refuse to turn away from the things that God hates. Even if it is accepted in the whole social class of which you are a part, turn away from it. Even if there is something that has come to be accepted by our generation, turn away from it if it is wrong and an offense to our holy and righteous Savior.”