Federal judge dismisses Friendship Village discrimination lawsuit

By Erin Achenbach
Staff Reporter
eachenbach@callnewspapers.com

A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit last week against Friendship Village filed by a married lesbian couple who alleged that they were discriminated against when the retirement community declined to let them move in.

U.S. District Judge Jean C. Hamilton ruled that the federal Fair Housing Act does not protect against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, according to a decision filed Jan. 16.

The lawsuit, filed by Mary Walsh and Bev Nance in July, alleged that Friendship Village Sunset Hills had discriminated against them because they were a lesbian couple and violated the federal Fair Housing Act and the Missouri Human Rights Act by not allowing them to buy a unit together in the senior living community.

Walsh and Nance have been together since 1976 and married in Massachusetts in 2009.

The couple toured multiple retirement homes before deciding on Friendship Village in 2016. They visited the facility multiple times before submitting an application and placed a $2,000 deposit to secure a unit.

The couple alleged in the lawsuit that they were then notified that their request had been denied because of the retirement community’s cohabitation policy that two people must be married in the “Biblical definition” between a man and a woman.

Walsh and Nance sued in July 2018 alleging sex discrimination under the Fair Housing Act. The couple was represented by the ACLU of Missouri and the National Center for Lesbian Rights.

“Ms. Walsh and Ms. Nance could not believe that in 2016, as a married couple, they would experience such open discrimination in their community,” the lawsuit stated. “ Earlier in their careers, Ms. Walsh and Ms. Nance had been afraid to reveal their sexual orientation at work…But after retiring and getting legally married, they thought they were living in a new time of increased acceptance.”

In Hamilton’s dismissal of the lawsuit, the judge wrote that the Fair Housing Act protected against discrimination based on “color, religion, sex, familial status, or national origin,” but that it does not protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation. The Missouri Human Rights Act also does not explicitly protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation.

“Upon consideration the court rejects this analysis, finding instead that sexual orientation rather than sex lies at the heart of plaintiffs’ claims,” Hamilton wrote, referring to the plaintiffs’ contention that they were discriminated against on the basis of sex.

“At no time do plaintiffs assert that had they been men involved in a same-sex relationship or marriage, they would have been admitted as residents in Friendship Village,” the ruling stated. “Under these circumstances, the court finds the claims boil down to those of discrimination based on sexual orientation rather than sex alone.”

In the ruling, Hamilton noted that while several federal courts have concluded that “discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a form of sex discrimination,” the 8th Circuit Court which Missouri is part of has held that Title VII does not protect against discrimination against gays and lesbians.

Representatives for Friendship Village and the National Center for Lesbian Rights did not respond with a statement on the lawsuit in time for this article’s publication.