Mary Walsh and Beverly Nance have been together for 40 years and have lived in St. Louis all their lives. They became familiar with Friendship Village Sunset Hills after visiting friends and, after multiple visits and extensive research, they filled out an application and paid a $2,000 deposit. What should have been their first step in moving to a new home instead became a nightmare when the retirement community refused the couple, saying that they follow the "Biblical definition" of marriage.
According to the National Center for Lesbian Rights ( NCLR )which, along with the ACLU of Missouri and Relman, Dane & Colfax PLLC, filed a lawsuit on the couple's behalf"Friendship Village is not affiliated with or operated by any religion or religious order; it is open to the public and does not inquire about the religious beliefs or affiliations of residents. Walsh and Nance considered seeking housing elsewhere, but Friendship Village is the only senior housing community in St. Louis that can provide increased levels of care without an increased monthly cost to residents."
According to the complaint, Friendship Village violated the federal Fair Housing Act and Missouri Human Rights Act by discriminating against Walsh and Nance on the basis of sex, denying them a unit because they are a same-sex married couple.
"The horrible discrimination experienced by this older lesbian couplefor something as basic as senior housingis a stark reminder of the challenges that many LGBT elders face," said SAGE CEO Michael Adams. "We know that this story is far from unique. Research shows that 45 percent of same-sex couples who apply for senior housing in Missouri are discriminated against. This lawsuit will help ensure that Mary and Bev and all older same-sex coupleswill have the same access to senior housing as everybody else."
Many facilities do provide quality care for LGBT older adults. However, there exists a coordinated nationwide effort to pass religious exemption laws and policies, and file lawsuits that would allow individuals, businesses, and even government contractors and grantees to use these religious exemptions to discriminate against a range of communities, including LGBT elders. Earlier this year, the Trump administration established the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division at the Department of Health & Human Services to shield medical providers who deny care based on religious or moral beliefs.
Older LGBT adults are particularly vulnerable to discrimination because religiously affiliated organizations provide a majority of the services they rely on for their most basic needs. Approximately 85 percent of nonprofit continuing-care retirement communities are affiliated with a religion. Religiously affiliated facilities provide the greatest number of affordable housing units that serve low-income seniors, and 14 percent of hospitals in the United States are religiously affiliated, accounting for 17 percent of all the country's hospital beds.
"Bev and Mary faced painful discriminationand would not have if either of them were instead married to a man," said NCLR Legal Director Shannon Minter. "This story demonstrates the severity of the discrimination and harm that members of our community still face daily."
Join SAGE and NCLR at a community briefing to learn about the issues raised in this lawsuit from national and local experts. The briefing will be offered twiceonce on Chicago's South Side hosted by Affinity Community Services and once on the North Side hosted by Howard Brown Health Center. Speakers will include Paula Basta, senior service director, Chicago Housing Authority; Donald Bell, activist and advocate, Senior Voice; Kim Hunt, executive director, Pride Action Tank; Amy Whelan, senior staff attorney, NCLR; and Serena Worthington, director of national field initiatives, SAGE.
The meetings are:
Wed., Nov. 14, 2-4 p.m., Affinity Community Services, 2850 S. Wabash Ave., #108; and
Wed., Nov. 14, 6-8 p.m., Howard Brown Health Center Atrium, 6500 N. Clark St.
Serena Worthington is the director of national field initiatives at SAGE, where she oversees SAGE's national affiliate network, facilitates state-based policy advocacy on LGBT aging issues, and enhances the capacity of partner organizations across the country to work effectively on behalf of LGBT older people.