A landmark ruling out of Illinois Friday finally put to bed attempts by national retailer Hobby Lobby to discriminate against an employee’s rights based on their gender identity, ending an 11-year fight that spawned from the simple act of using the bathroom.
The Illinois Second District Appellate Court ruled in favor of transgender Hobby Lobby employee Meggan Sommerville, stating that Hobby Lobby violated the state’s anti-bias law by denying her from using the women’s restroom at her workplace. The ruling stated Sommerville is “unquestionably female” and should be permitted to use the bathroom that correlates to her gender identity.
“They stuck to the law,” Sommerville, who has worked at Hobby Lobby for 23 years, told Forbes after the ruling came down. “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’s framing of the decision isn’t hyperbolic. Friday’s ruling marks the first instance of protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity that last year’s Bostock v. Clayton County decision guaranteed to federal employees extending to employees of private companies.
“The court basically says this was not just transgender discrimination, it was sex discrimination, which is what federal courts have found,” said Jacob Meister, Sommerville’s attorney. “What this court said is, as a matter of Illinois law, Meggan’s sex is female. She not only has a female gender identity, but as a matter of Illinois law, her sex is female.”
Sommerville stated that her treatment by Hobby Lobby, a company with a long history of proliferating anti-LGBTQ sentiments, impacted her health through her limiting fluid intake at work and heightened her fears of assault and/or mocking from men.
“This decision will have national implications and start the process of courts around the country addressing the issue of bathroom access,” Meister told Bloomberg.
Hobby Lobby justified its treatment of Sommerville by stating the company installed a “unisex bathroom” in Sommerville’s store and would allow Sommerville to use the women’s bathroom if she produced a birth certificate showing her to be female or proved that she underwent gender-affirming surgery. They also threw in the common adage that denying Sommerville access to the women’s restroom was meant to protect women.
The court rejected Hobby Lobby’s arguments unanimously, saying that their practices had no support under the Illinois Human Rights Act. “Hobby Lobby’s argument that female status is somehow immutable is belied not only by the Act, but also by its own conduct,” read the filing. It further stated that Hobby Lobby’s “protecting women” argument “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 ruling read. “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”
Sommerville’s previous $220,000 judgment for emotional distress and attorneys’ fees was upheld. Hobby Lobby hasn’t commented publicly on the ruling, but an appeal is likely to come with some form of religious freedom wrapped into its defense of its actions. The company was victorious in securing the same protections based on religious beliefs reserved for churches and individuals for for-profit corporations with the Supreme Court’s ruling on Burwell v. Hobby Lobby in 2014.
According to Forbes, both Sommerville and Meister are committed to fight the company all the way to the Supreme Court, where Bostock v. Clayton County was decided.
Hobby Lobby: Previously on Towleroad
Photo courtesy of JJBers/Creative Commons