Together as a couple for nearly 40 years, former teacher Bev Nance and her wife, Mary Walsh, a former phone-company manager, have barely slowed in their retirement, with regular trips to places such as the Colorado Rockies, U.S. Virgin Islands and Provincetown, Massachusetts, where they legally married in 2009.
But with age — Nance, who taught Bravo host and exec Andy Cohen in high school, is 68; Walsh is 72 — a senior living community made sense as they considered a move from their three-story villa in a suburb of their native St. Louis, Missouri.
At the first one they visited, Walsh asked if they welcomed same-sex couples.
“They looked at me like I had three heads and said, ‘Of course,’ ” she says. “I never asked again. I thought, well, I guess things have changed. I guess it’s okay now.”
They soon learned otherwise, Walsh tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue.
Days after making a $2,000 deposit in July 2016 for a 2-bedroom unit at another senior community, Friendship Village in suburban Sunset Hills, Walsh says she was “stunned” to receive calls and a letter rejecting and refunding their residency application. She says they were told their marriage clashed with Friendship Village’s “cohabitation policy,” which reads in part, “The term ‘marriage’ … means the union of one man and one woman, as marriage is understood in the Bible.”
On July 25 of this year, she and Nance filed suit in federal court alleging discrimination; they hope to end the policy and “deter similar discriminatory conduct” by Friendship Village in the future, according to the lawsuit.
“If either of them were married to a man instead of a woman, this never would have happened,” says Julie Wilensky, their attorney with the National Center for Lesbian Rights. “No one should be denied housing simply because of who they are.”
Cohen, who studied under Nance at Clayton High School in suburban St. Louis, also weighed in, and credited Nance with providing the tutoring that kept him from flunking pre-algebra. “She deserves better,” he wrote. “We all do!”
The women have “a strong case,” but with no existing U.S. Supreme Court precedent on the topic, lower courts still are wrestling over whether discrimination involving gender also includes sexual orientation, says Elizabeth Sepper, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis. “There’s nothing certain in this case,” she says.
The Friendship Village board of directors has not yet filed a legal response but tells PEOPLE in a statement: “We are prayerfully and thoughtfully reviewing this issue.”
Walsh says the couple hid nothing about themselves during the time they met with the Friendship Village residence director, toured the community, and were recruited for months afterward as potential residents.
Above all, she says they want to foster change that still would allow them to move into Friendship Village, where they already have longtime friends — two husband-and-wife couples — among its 450 residents
“That’s all we ever asked,” Walsh says.