Knoxville widow says funeral home rejected her over same sex marriage

KNOXVILLE (WATE) – A Knoxville woman claims a funeral home refused to serve her over gay marriage. It happened less than 24 hours after Ulli Sczesni lost her wife Luanne to a stroke.

“I’m hurt. I’m terribly hurt,” Sczesni said. “We were just so connected. She was my soul mate. The term wife was not good enough. You just lose somebody… it hurts. You miss that person and then you’re penalized for it.”

Her wife’s body was transported to Berry Funeral Home in South Knoxville, only to be relocated to Maryville. Sczesni claims a Berry Funeral Home employee told her gay marriage was illegal and he would not provide her with funeral services.

“He said, ‘I need to speak to her next of kin, ‘and I said that’s me. I’m her spouse,” she said. “And he said, ‘You’re a woman.’ And I said, ‘Yes I am, but we are legally married.’ And he said, ‘Well I’m very sorry for your loss but that is not legal in Tennessee.’”

The funeral home is calling the situation a misunderstanding, even apologizing to Sczesni for the incident.

“We are dedicated to treating our client families with dignity and respect,” Fred Berry, president of Berry Funeral Home, said in a statement. “As part of our service, it is our responsibility to verify the rights of the individual seeking to make disposition decisions for a decedent.  We did not refuse service to the family and they ultimately chose a different provider. We respect their decision and sincerely apologize for any misunderstanding.”

As for the legality of the issue, WATE 6 On Your Side legal analyst Greg Isaacs said it will be up to the U.S. Supreme Court to decide whether it is legal for a private business to refuse service to same sex married couples.

“The state recognizing same sex marriages or not is really a separate issue on whether you can deny services if you are a private business or a private individual,” Isaacs said.

The issue of businesses serving same sex couples is under consideration right now by the U.S. Supreme Court. The court agreed in June to hear a Colorado Cake Shop case, challenging that state’s law, which requires companies to serve everyone.

Sczesni says her days of mourning are just beginning, but she hopes that lessons will be learned from her funeral home experience, to spare others from similar hassle and pain.

“It’s just not right,” Sczesni said. “I’m angry. I’m frustrated. I’m hurt. I’m discriminated. It just shouldn’t happen to anybody else.”

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