Mississippi funeral home demonstrates what legal anti-gay discrimination looks like

Nothing in Mississippi state law prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Jack Zawadski sharing photos of his late husband Bob Huskey. CREDIT: Lambda Legal/Screenshot
Jack Zawadski sharing photos of his late husband Bob Huskey. CREDIT: Lambda Legal/Screenshot

Imagine your spouse’s death is imminent. You’ve cared for each other and for each other’s family members for over five decades, but now your spouse’s condition is rapidly deteriorating. Hospice care is no longer enough for their daily needs, so you place them in a nursing home, while continuing to spend as much time with them as possible. You know their time is short, so your nephew arranges with a local funeral home to transport and cremate the body upon their passing.

The day comes when you get the call that your spouse has died. As the next of kin, you need to sign the final paperwork for the funeral home, so you fax it over. But then the nursing home calls and says the funeral home has refused to transport the body. The paperwork revealed that you and your late spouse were of the same sex, and the funeral home doesn’t “deal with their kind,” so it has backed out of all of the arrangements.

That’s what happened to Jack Zawadski last year in Mississippi, according to a new lawsuit. Zawadski alleges that the Picayune Funeral Home refused to honor an agreement to transport and cremate his husband, Bob Huskey, turning an already sad day into a total nightmare.

The nursing home at which Huskey had been staying didn’t have a morgue, and the next closest funeral home that could perform a cremation was 90 miles away. The time it would take for that funeral home to come pick up the body was longer than the nursing home could hold onto the body without a morgue, so Zawadski’s Colorado-based nephew, John Gaspari, had to frantically find yet another local funeral home that could transport it. And because the alternative was so far away, it ruined the plans they had to memorialize Huskey.

Now, with support from Lambda Legal, Zawadski and Gasapari are suing the funeral home that refused them service. The problem is that Zawadski can make no claim against the Picayune Funeral Home for anti-gay discrimination, because no law in Mississippi protects against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Instead, the suit accuses the funeral home of breach of contract and emotional distress. The closest it gets to holding it accountable for discrimination is a charge of “negligent misrepresentation” (false advertising). To this day, Picayune Funeral Home (PFH) advertises its services to the public without caveat about who it serves. It promises to “strive to meet the needs of the families we service” and assured that “your loved one is with us the entire time, whether you choose burial or cremation.”

“In reality,” the lawsuit says, “Defendant PFH would not provide services to gay people and their families. Defendant PFH’s advertisements were untrue, deceptive or misleading as to some families.”

Despite the fact that no Mississippi law penalizes anti-LGBTQ discrimination, state lawmakers passed a law last year explicitly protecting discrimination against LGBTQ people on the basis of “religious beliefs or moral convictions.” But a federal judge ruled in July that the law cannot be enforced, so it will not be immediately available to protect PFH. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit is considering an appeal in that case, however, and could lift the stay on the law — and soon.

“At a moment of such personal pain and loss, to have someone do what they did to me, to us, to Bob, I just couldn’t believe it,” Zawadski said in a statement. “No one should be put through what we were put through.”