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Lambda Legal has joined a lawsuit against a funeral home in Picayune, Mississippi, alleging that it refused to provide services for a married gay man upon his death. Robert Huskey died at age 86 in 2016, leaving his 82-year-old husband, Jack Zawadski, struggling to make arrangements for his husband’s body hours after learning of his death.

According to the lawsuit, the funeral home said that they do “not deal with their kind.”

“What happened to this family is shocking,” Lambda Legal Counsel Beth Littrell said. “Almost immediately after losing his husband and partner of more than 50 years, Jack Zawadski’s grief was compounded by injustice and callous treatment from the very place that should have helped ease his suffering. Following Bob’s death, the funeral home, the only one in the area with a crematorium, refused to honor agreed-upon funeral arrangements after learning that Bob and Jack were married.”

Jack and Bob

“I felt as if all the air had been knocked out of me,” Zawadski said. “Bob was my life, and we had always felt so welcome in this community.”
Huskey and Zawadski, who moved to Picayune two decades ago, spent 52 years together. When the United States Supreme Court legalized marriage for lesbian and gay couples nationwide in 2015, the couple married immediately. Soon after, Huskey became ill and was placed in a nursing home.

Discriminated Against in Death

In April 2016, with Huskey’s health quickly failing, John Gaspari made arrangements with Picayune Funeral Home to have him cremated upon his death. The funeral home hosts the only on-site crematorium in Pearl River County.

When Huskey died on May 11, 2016, the nursing home provided the funeral home with his identifying information. The funeral home quickly discovered that Robert Huskey was married to Jack Zawadski. Shortly after, the couple’s nephew received a phone call informing him that Picayune Funeral Home was refusing to pick the body up and perform the cremation.

For the next several hours, Gaspari and his uncle struggled to make arrangements. They finally found a funeral home with an on-site crematorium. Huskey’s body had to be transported 90 miles to Hattiesburg.

“John made all necessary arrangements before Bob’s passing in order to shield his 82-year-old uncle from additional suffering and to allow friends to gather to support Jack in his grief,” Littrell said. “Instead, Bob’s peaceful passing was marred by turmoil, distress and indignity, adding immeasurable anguish to Jack and John’s loss. This should not have happened to them, and should not be allowed to happen again.”

The Lawsuit

Though a Mississippi law passed last year that recognized a right of businesses to discriminate against LGBT people, the lawsuit does not deal directly with that (a separate court case is challenging that law). Since the funeral home had already signed an agreement to take care of Zawadski’s remains, this suit seeks damages for breach of contract, negligent misrepresentation, and the intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress.

“What happened to this family is shocking,” Lambda Legal Counsel Beth Littrell said. “Almost immediately after losing his husband and partner of more than 50 years, Jack Zawadski’s grief was compounded by injustice and callous treatment from the very place that should have helped ease his suffering.”

You can read the full text of the complaint here.

Picayune Funeral Home

“We strive to make our families and visitors feel comfortable while paying respects to their lost loved ones,” reads a statement on Picayune Funeral Home’s website. “We make considerable efforts to maintain our focus on the high standards expected of a place of tribute.”

At press time, Picayune Funeral Home had not responded to a request for comment.

Update: Picayune Funeral Home has denied the charges, claiming in court papers that the lawsuit was filed “without substantial justification, is frivolous, and is groundless in fact and law.”

What role does HB 1523 play in this?

House Bill 1523, referred to by supporters as a “religious freedom” law, was signed into law by Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant in April of 2016. The law promised to protect businesses and officials who cite a religious motive for discriminating against others in cases relating to same-sex marriage or transgender people.

We contacted Lambda Legal and spoke to Beth Littrell to answer that question.

“Had 1523 been in place at the time, then it is possible that they could have used it as a complete defense to even a breach of contract claim or a claim of negligence or intentional infliction,” Littrell said.

“It has not been used as a defense in this case, but it relates and there certainly is an implication where the law could be used in the future as a shield for outrageous actions and breach of contract claims.”

Though HB 1523 had only just been signed the month before Huskey’s death – and never went into effect because it was blocked by courts – Littrell thinks it’s still relevant to the case.

“Where the state’s government passes a law that encourages discrimation like 1523 does, it creates the environment” that makes incidents like the one in Picayune more likely, she said.

In announcing the case, Lambda Legal released the following video:

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