A Christian retirement care facility in St. Louis, Missouri, is being sued after it turned away a lesbian couple in accordance with its biblically-based housing policy.
Seventy-two-year-old Mary Walsh and Bev Nance, 68, filed a federal lawsuit last month against the Missouri-based nondenominational nonprofit senior housing community Friendship Village Sunset Hills, a case that could have greater implications when it comes to the religious freedom rights of faith-based nonprofit institutions.
The couple, married since 2009, claim that the facility violated the Fair Housing Act and the Missouri Human Rights Act when it rejected their application for housing in July 2016 because they were a lesbian couple.
The refusal was based on the fact that Friendship Village's "cohabitation policy" limits those who can live together in the same unit to spouses, parents, children and siblings. Although Walsh and Nance are legally married, Friendship Village's policy defines marriage as "the union of one man and one woman, as marriage is understood in the Bible."
In response, the couple initially filed a federal housing discrimination complaint last year with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. But considering the Trump administration's wide interpretation of religious freedom, the couple have since turned to the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri to claim Friendship Village engaged in sex discrimination.
Although neither federal or Missouri law ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, lawyers for the couple argue that if either Walsh or Nance was a man, their application wouldn't have been rejected. (If both of them were men, their applications would still have been rejected under the cohabitation policy.)
The couple's lawsuit not only asks the court to force Friendship Village to change its cohabitation policy but also asks the court for a permanent injunction that would allow the couple to move into Friendship Village, where several of their other friends reside.
"We've been together for nearly 40 years and have spent our lives in St. Louis. We want to grow older here by each other's side," Walsh said in a statement. "We should not be prevented from accessing the housing and care we need."
The couple are being represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri and the National Center for Lesbian Rights.
"Mary and Bev were denied housing for one reason and one reason only — because they were married to each other rather than to men," NCLR Senior Staff Attorney Julie Wilensky stated. "This is exactly the type of sex discrimination the Fair Housing Act prohibits. Their story demonstrates the kind of exclusion and discrimination still facing same-sex couples of all ages."
James S. Diel III, the vice president of the Friendship Village Services' board of directors, said in a statement that the board is taking the matter "very seriously" and is "prayerfully and thoughtfully reviewing this issue."
"The Board of Directors of Friendship Village, guided by our Christian faith, leads a loving community that wishes only the very best for all people, including Ms. Walsh and Ms. Nance," the statement reads.
While some LGBT activists argue that this is a "clear-cut case of discrimination," conservative religious freedom advocates believe that the retirement facility should be allowed to operate in accordance with its religious convictions.
"While the Supreme Court redefined marriage for government purposes, private citizens and the groups they form — including religious organizations — should remain free to live out the truth about marriage, that it unites man and woman, husband and wife," Ryan T. Anderson, author of Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious Freedom and senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington, D.C., said in a statement shared with The Christian Post. "The government should not penalize people for living in accordance with the truth."
Travis Weber, the director of the Family Research Council's Center for Religious Liberty, told CP in a phone interview Wednesday that there are serious religious freedom implications at play that could extend beyond Friendship Village.
"We not only have issues involving for-profit businesses but we are getting into lawsuits and claims against nonprofits. Friendship Village is a nonprofit corporation," Weber stressed. "There are many more faith-based nonprofits set up to further faith-based initiatives and advance their faith tenets. It is much more dangerous when you get into claiming that these nonprofits have no freedom to operate as nonprofits. That is the implication of a suit like this one if it were to be successful."
The lawsuit comes as leaders within Christian higher education have previously voiced concern that faith-based colleges could be at risk of losing tax-exempt status or facing other forms of punishment because of institutional policies barring same-sex couples from living in the same dorm rooms.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that the state of Colorado violated the rights of Christian baker Jack Phillips of Masterpiece Cakeshop when it punished him for refusing to bake a cake for a same-sex wedding.
"Just like Jack Phillips and how the creation of the cake involved him engaging in a process that violates his faith, similarly here, it is perfectly understandable that an entity that provides housing for people does not want to be asked to do something that is part of a lifestyle and conduct that violates its tenets," Weber said.
However, the Supreme Court's ruling only addressed the Masterpiece situation and wasn't a sweeping ruling that impacts other Christian businesses.
"These issues will continue to rise because Masterpiece did not provide a clear legal outcome that addresses them all," Weber stressed. "It just really addresses its own facts and we are going to have [to] see the courts address these issues or legislation at the state and federal level."
One major difference between Phillips' case and that of Friendship Village is the fact that Phillips' refusal to bake a cake was not over the couple's sexual orientation but rather his refusal to take part in a ceremony celebrating a same-sex union by making a custom wedding cake. Friendship Village, if it chooses to raise a Religious Freedom Restoration Act claim, won't be able to make a similar claim as easily.
"The folks bringing this claim are going to rely on that [difference] for sure," Weber said. "But when we go back to the religious beliefs being exercised here, they are being exercised with regard to conduct or activity that the entity is being asked to support or somehow further. It also violates faith."
Weber also pointed to a similar case where a Christian-owned funeral home that fired a biologically male transgender worker for wearing female clothing lost its case before Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. Weber stressed that rulings like the one involving the Michigan funeral home illustrate why legislation needs to be passed to protect religious business owners and faith-based entities.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, introduced again this year the First Amendment Defense Act, which would bar federal agencies from taking actions against a person or entity on the basis that they act in "accordance with a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction that marriage is or should be recognized as a union of one man and one woman."
The bill was originally introduced in 2015 following the Supreme Court's ruling making same-sex marriage legal nationwide. Although it was reintroduced in March, it hasn't yet been taken up by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Similar bills would need to be passed at the state level to protect against individual state discrimination policies.