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'It's Always The Right Time To Fight Discrimination,' Says Lawyer For LGBTQ Couple In Housing Case

Arlene Zarembka (at left) is a lawyer for the plaintiffs in the case, and Jeffrey Mittman is the executive director of the ACLU of Missouri. They joined the Jan. 22, 2019, talk show.
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

The LGBTQ couple whose lawsuit against Sunset Hills-based Friendship Village was recently dismissed by a circuit judge will be taking further legal action, an attorney for Mary Walsh and Beverly Nance told host Don Marsh during Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air.

“Definitely Mary and Bev are going to be appealing this,” Arlene Zarembka said of the Jan. 16 decision. The case against the local retirement community is one that St. Louis Public Radio’s Shahla Farzan has been following since the summer of 2018.

In conversation with Marsh and Jeffrey Mittman, executive director of the ACLU of Missouri, Zarembka noted that the judge argued the Federal Housing Act “doesn’t bar discrimination based on sexual orientation and that this was not a sex-discrimination claim.”

“We of course vigorously disagree with that, because by definition, if you reject somebody [because] she’s married to a woman, you are rejecting them because of the sex of the person to whom they are married,” Zarembka added. “And if Mary had been married to a man, they would not have been rejected, or vice versa.”

Mittman said the ACLU is “disappointed” with the ruling as well and expects it “will be shown eventually to be incorrect.”

“But in the meantime, we’re continuing to work to tell [Mary and Bev’s] story – to let Missourians know why a state where all of us are welcome, where all of us are included, is a better state,” Mittman added, “and then working with the legislators to address this as well.”

The Missouri Nondiscrimination Act, or MONA, is one avenue that has been introduced for two decades straight in the Missouri legislature.

“We want to protect people in their housing, in their public accommodations and in their employment,” Mittman said of the proposed legislation. “So in other words, we should be able to go into a restaurant and eat without being refused because of our religion, because of our gender, because of our sexual orientation, because of our race. We should be able to work. We should be able to find housing. Right now in Missouri there are not sufficient protections so that’s the case. And that’s why you get decisions like this.”

Zarembka said her clients’ case “affects all senior gays and lesbians.”

“[They] worry about, ‘Where will I be able to live when I’m older – if I need more assistance … where am I going to be able to go?’” she said. “And some people say, ‘Well, just move someplace else.’ It costs money to move. St. Louis is a very low-cost city compared to, for example, New Mexico or some other states.

“We can’t just up and leave. And, on top of it, we shouldn’t have to. Our networks of friends, family, are all here in St. Louis. So all the people who live in St. Louis who are LGBT, who want to remain here to maintain those connections, they should be able to be allowed to do so and be allowed to live in peace and safety in retirement communities of any sort in Missouri.”

Mittman said his organization is focused on the question of how to “move the courts forward” as well as public opinion and legislation.

“You and I know,” Mittman said, addressing Marsh, “that right now in the state of Missouri it would be perfectly legal for the leadership of the public radio station to come to you and say, ‘You’re a straight man, and we’re firing you because you’re straight.’ Now, we know that’s morally wrong – we know it’s not the kind of society we want to live in – but that’s the way the law is currently in Missouri. So we have to move forward on several fronts.”

When asked whether the currently “divisive” state of public discourse in the U.S. is the best time to push the issue, Zarembka replied that “it’s always the right time to fight discrimination.”

“I can assure you that back in 1986 when we had the Hardwick decision [on sexual relations] come down from the [U.S.] Supreme Court, and when we had the criminalization of gays and lesbians in Missouri, it was the right time to fight those,” she said. “Those were really dark days, and yet we made progress even during those dark days.”

A representative for Friendship Village sent St. Louis Public Radio a brief statement about the case on Tuesday morning.

It reads, “The Board of Directors of Friendship Village, which has been serving seniors with excellence for more than 40 years, has been reviewing with legal counsel Judge Hamilton’s Memorandum and Order on the matter brought by Ms. Walsh and Ms. Nance. We have no additional comment to offer at this time but will reach out in the future as we are able. We continue to wish Ms. Walsh and Ms. Nance the best.”

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Alex HeuerEvie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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