After Mary Walsh and Beverly Nance were married in 2009, they thought their right to live together as a couple was secure.
Now the two women are at the center of a landmark legal case against a St. Louis County retirement community. The same-sex couple was denied housing at Friendship Village in 2016 on the basis of a “Cohabitation Policy” that defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman, “as marriage is understood in the Bible.”
The couple had settled on Friendship Village in Sunset Hills after an extensive search for a retirement community that fit their needs.
Walsh and Nance were attracted to the range of on-site housing options at the 52-acre facility, including independent units, assisted living and memory care.
"That way, if something happened to one of us, the other one would still be in the community,” said Walsh, a retired AT&T manager. “We could still have dinner together and look out for each other.”
Nance, 68, a retired high school math teacher and professor at Maryville University, was drawn to the social activities and fitness classes available to residents at Friendship Village.
After meeting with Friendship Village’s residence director, Carmen Fronczak, and visiting the facility several times, the couple began receiving brochures and other promotional materials.
Fronczak offered to waive the $12,000 entrance fee and told the couple they would work with them to negotiate a final deadline for the closing on the unit, depending on when they sold their Shrewsbury home.
“They seemed like they were trying to be as accommodating as possible,” Walsh said.
The couple notified their homeowners association that they would be putting their home up for sale and canceled a vacation to the Canadian Rockies.
Then, several days after signing the paperwork with Friendship Village and submitting a $2,000 deposit, Walsh received a phone call from Fronczak, asking about the nature of her relationship with Nance.
Walsh responded that they had been legally married since 2009, to which Fronczak responded, “I’m going to have to call you back.”
Friendship Village rejected their application two days later.
Shortly thereafter, the organization mailed a copy of their “Cohabitation Policy” to the couple, which defines marriage as between one man and one woman.
“I was stunned,” Walsh said. “I just felt like I had been kind of kicked in the stomach. We just didn’t see this coming. I think we all were under the belief that the acceptance of the Marriage Act had settled some things.”
The couple decided in July to take their case to federal court for sex discrimination, in what is believed to be the first federal lawsuit involving a same-sex couple denied housing at a retirement community.
Under the federal Fair Housing Act, it’s illegal to refuse to rent or sell housing to someone due to their “race, color, religion, sex, familial status, or national origin.”
Neither the Fair Housing Act nor the Missouri Human Rights Act explicitly mentions sexual orientation.
But the legal team representing the plaintiffs, including the ACLU of Missouri, say this is a clear case of sex discrimination, in violation of both federal and Missouri law.
“If one of these two women were a man instead of a woman, there would have been no problem with them being admitted to Friendship Village,” said Arlene Zarembka, a St. Louis-based private attorney for the plaintiffs.
In recent years, courts have held that discrimination based on sexual orientation is a form of sex discrimination, including cases involving education and employment.
There are two pending LGBTQ anti-discrimination cases — one before the Missouri Supreme Court and the other in the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals — that will likely be important to the outcome of the Friendship Village case.
“I would say that while the plaintiffs have a very strong case of sex discrimination, it’s not a clear winner due to a lot of moving parts in the legal system at the moment,” said Elizabeth Sepper, a Washington University law school professor and expert in anti-discrimination law.
Friendship Village declined an interview request, and the law firm representing the organization, Husch Blackwell, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
In a statement, however, the organization’s board of directors said they lead “a loving community that wishes only the very best for all people, including Ms. Walsh and Ms. Nance,” and that they are “prayerfully and thoughtfully reviewing this issue.”
Friendship Village must respond to the plaintiff’s complaint in court by Sept. 14.
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