NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - An elderly man is suing a Mississippi funeral home he claims refused to cremate his husband’s body in a landmark case that campaigners say could widen the rights of gay people in the conservative state.
John Zawadski, 82, filed the civil suit in state court after he sought the services of the Picayune Funeral Home for his partner of 52 years but was told the business did not “deal with their kind,” according to the complaint.
His attorney Beth Littrell, from gay rights group Lambda Legal, said she believed this was the first case in which somebody was suing for discrimination based on sexual orientation for being refused services at a funeral home.
Mississippi has been a hotbed of activity over equality, privacy and religious freedom after the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015 legalized same-sex marriage in all 50 U.S. states, said a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, an advocacy group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people.
Last year a federal judge blocked a Mississippi law that was intended to allow people who objected on religious grounds to refuse weddings and other services to LGBT people. The law is currently under review.
According to the suit, the funeral home in southern Mississippi did not follow through with an oral agreement to transport and cremate the body of Robert Huskey last May.
The decision came after paperwork identified his surviving spouse as a man, it said.
“The turmoil ... marred the memory of Bob’s otherwise peaceful passing,” the complaint said.
Relatives were unable to gather friends for the service as they had intended, it said, after scrambling to find another funeral home offering cremation some 90 miles (145 km) away.
“I felt as if all the air had been knocked out of me,” Zawadski said in a statement. “No one should be put through what we were put through.”
Zawadski, whose nephew is a co-plaintiff in the case, is seeking damages for breach of contract and emotional distress.
An attorney for the defense, Silas McCharen, said in an emailed statement that Picayune Funeral Home had never refused to provide funeral services based on sexual orientation. He denied the funeral home’s co-owner had said the words “deal with their kind”.
In the Mississippi town of Oxford, activist Gail Stratton said she hoped the suit would further the rights of LGBT people statewide as debate on the issue and acceptance were on the rise.
“There absolutely has to be legal challenges,” said the spokeswoman with LGBT rights group PFLAG.
“I truly think we’re just like decades behind the rest of the country on that,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview.