Move over, Masterpiece Cakeshop. There’s a new “religious freedom” lawsuit in town.
A married lesbian couple say they were unlawfully discriminated against by a senior living community in Missouri because of the owner’s religion.
Mary Walsh (above, left) and Bev Nance are suing the Friendship Village facility, saying it denied them occupancy in 2016 based on their sexual orientation. The center apparently has a cohabitation policy that uses a strictly heterosexual and Bible-based definition of marriage, according to the lawsuit.
The Cohabitation Policy states that Friendship Village “will permit the cohabitation of residents within a single unit only if those residents, while residing in said unit, are related as spouses by marriage, as parent and child or as siblings,” defining “[t]he term ‘marriage’ as used in this policy means the union of one man and one woman, as marriage is understood in the Bible.” The Cohabitation Policy states that it “has applied to all new residents for many years, [and] will continue to apply to all new residents.”
Defendants are not affiliated with any religion or operated by any religious institution or order. Friendship Village is open to the public and does not inquire about the religious beliefs or affiliations of residents.
In addition to denying housing to Ms. Walsh and Ms. Nance, Defendants have denied housing to other same-sex couples pursuant to the Cohabitation Policy. Defendants have not inquired about, or sought documentation of, the marital status of different-sex couples applying to live at Friendship Village.
In the last several years, there have been different-sex unmarried couples who share or shared a single housing unit at Friendship Village.
The women, who are represented by the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the ACLU, say Friendship Village’s policy violates 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. This is exactly the type of sex discrimination the Fair Housing Act prohibits,” Julie Wilensky, a lawyer for the center, said in a news release. “Their story demonstrates the kind of exclusion and discrimination still facing same-sex couples of all ages.”
In response, Friendship Village’s management company FV Services released a statement Wednesday: “We have just been made aware of a lawsuit that we have not yet seen and have not had an opportunity to review. This matter will be discussed with legal counsel and (we) have no further comment at this time.”
It’s possible the company could get away with this by saying they’re a private company and entitled to set their own rules, though the counterargument is that those rules can’t violate the Fair Housing Act.
This issue is going to have to be resolved one way or the other. In the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop, the Supreme Court punted by citing a technicality. But sooner or later, the battle between bigotry disguised as “religious freedom” and anti-discrimination will be settled.