Hobby Lobby Loses 11-Year Battle To Ban Trans Employee From Using Bathroom

Culture Wars
Hobby Lobby Loses 11-Year Battle To Ban Trans Employee From Using Bathroom
Hobby Lobby | Fredericksburg, VA (Central Park) | m01229 | Flickr

Eleven years ago, a Hobby Lobby store in East Aurora, Illinois, banned Meggan Sommerville, an employee who had been working there for 23 years, from using the bathroom at work. Why? Because she happened to be trans and the owners of Hobby Lobby are super religious theocratic assholes who for some reason believe they have a constitutional right to force their employees to practice their religion. Frequently, our courts have done little to disabuse them of this notion.

But on Friday, Hobby Lobby lost. A unanimous verdict from Illinois's Second District Appellate Court — from a panel of all conservative judges, mind you — rejected every one of Hobby Lobby's claims, and it wasn't even close. Appellate Court Justice Mary Seminara-Schostok, in a joint opinion with Appellate Court Justices Kathryn E. Zenoff and Ann B. Jorgensen, wrote out the four key findings that led them to determine the case in Sommerville's favor.

1. "The only reason that Sommerville is barred from using the women's bathroom is that she is a transgender woman, unlike the other women (at least, as far as Hobby Lobby knows)."

2. "Hobby Lobby argues that it was simply acting as a reasonable employer and enforcing its rules about separate bathrooms by keeping a male out of the women's bathroom, but Hobby Lobby itself recognizes that Sommerville is female. Hobby Lobby's unlawful discrimination was not designating bathrooms by sex, but denying Sommerville access to the bathroom that matched her sex."

3. "The existence of the unisex bathroom is irrelevant to the main issue in this case, which is whether Hobby Lobby violated Sommerville's civil rights in denying her, but not other women, access to the women's bathroom. Hobby Lobby's provision of a unisex bathroom available to all employees and customers cannot cure its unequal treatment of Sommerville with respect to the women's bathroom."

4. "The final argument raised by Hobby Lobby regarding its bathroom ban—that it was necessary to protect other women from Sommerville—lacks support in either the record or logic... There is simply no evidence that Sommerville's use of the women's bathroom would pose a safety risk to other women... The presence of a transgender person in a bathroom poses no greater inherent risk to privacy or safety than that posed by anyone else who uses the bathroom."

The judges also denied Hobby Lobby's petition to not have to pay Sommerville the $220,000 awarded by Illinois's Human Rights Commission, and remanded the case back to the Commission so it can determine if Hobby Lobby owes Sommerville even more than that.

Much of the decision was predicated on the fact that not only was Sommerville recognized as a woman by the state of Illinois, but also by Hobby Lobby itself. Upon transitioning, Sommerville informed the company of her new name and gender, and the company updated its paperwork to reflect that. Thus, it seemed patently ridiculous Hobby Lobby would not allow a woman the company recognized as a woman to use the women's bathroom.

"This is a precedent setting case in Illinois, because the Human Rights Act has never been tested in this way in Illinois, and actually in the country," Sommerville told reporters. The Illinois Human Rights Act "forbids discrimination in education, employment, access to financial credit, public accommodations, and real estate transactions."

According to her lawyer, the decision will impact not just that one Hobby Lobby store in East Aurora, but every place of business statewide. It will also impact a whole lot of people who will be able to cite this case instead of having to fight 11-year legal battles of their own.


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Robyn Pennacchia

Robyn Pennacchia is a brilliant, fabulously talented and visually stunning angel of a human being, who shrugged off what she is pretty sure would have been a Tony Award-winning career in musical theater in order to write about stuff on the internet. Follow her on Twitter at @RobynElyse


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