A married lesbian couple — Mary Walsh and Beverly Nance — didn’t get the answer they wanted when they sued a faith-based retirement community in Missouri after staff denied their application on the basis of sexual orientation.
On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Jean Hamilton dismissed the couple’s lawsuit, arguing workers at Friendship Village in Sunset Hills didn’t violate the Fair Housing Act, as the couple’s attorney claimed, St. Louis Public Public Radio reported.
“The court finds the claims boil down to those of discrimination based on sexual orientation rather than sex alone,” Hamilton wrote in her decision to dismiss the case.
What did the couple claim?
Walsh told The New York Times in August they were disappointed with the retirement facility’s decision to deny their housing application, which required a $2,000 security deposit they’d already paid.
“We’d met other people from the community, and they were very friendly,” she said. “I was feeling good about it.”
After reviewing the couple’s application, though, the residence director contacted Walsh, inquiring about the nature of her relationship with Nance. When Walsh said they got married in 2009, the staff member reportedly said, “I’m going to need to call you back.”
The couple received a package in the mail soon thereafter, informing them their application had been denied.
“The 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 stated.
As a result of the residence director’s decision, the lesbian couple filed a federal complaint against Friendship Village, arguing they were discriminated against on the basis of sex — an act Walsh and Nance claimed violated the Fair Housing Act and the Missouri Human Rights Act.
“Mary and Bev were denied housing for one reason and one reason only — because they were married to each other rather than to men,” said National Center for Lesbian Rights attorney Julie Wilensky, who is representing the couple.
“This is exactly the type of sex discrimination the Fair Housing Act prohibits,” she continued. “Their story demonstrates the kind of exclusion and discrimination still facing same-sex couples of all ages.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri is also supporting Nance and Walsh.
What else did the judge say?
Hamilton argued it’s legal for staff at Friendship Village to discriminate on grounds of sexual orientation, because the Fair Housing Act doesn’t specifically bar discrimination based on sexual orientation.
The federal statute bans discrimination based on “race, color, religion, sex, familial status, or national origin,” rendering Hamilton’s distinction both noteworthy and legally correct.
It is not yet clear what the couple plans to do next, though Walsh said she and her partner are exploring potential “next steps.”
It seems possible the judge may have dismissed the case in hopes of triggering a legal conversation about a potential change to the Fair Housing Act, which could ultimately result in the addition of “sexual orientation” to the list of protected classes.