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An Illinois state appellate court has ruled that arts and crafts giant Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. violated the state’s Human Rights Act by barring a transgender female employee from accessing the women’s bathroom.
On Friday, a three-judge panel of the Illinois Second District Appellate Court unanimously found that Hobby Lobby had unlawfully discriminated against Meggan Sommerville more than a decade ago when it refused to allow her to use the women’s bathroom at its store in East Aurora, Illinois.
According to the court’s findings, Hobby Lobby continued to bar her from the women’s restroom despite Sommerville informing the retail giant that she had socially transitioned and intended to use the women’s bathroom at the store, and despite submitting documentation, including a letter from her medical provider, verifying that she had transitioned.
Sommerville occasionally used the women’s bathroom at the store, at which point Hobby Lobby issued her a warning and even encouraged other employees to report her if she used the women’s restroom.
Sommerville filed complaints with the state’s Human Rights Commission, alleging discrimination on the basis of gender identity. Her distress over having to use the men’s restroom led her to avoid liquid intake, resulting in dehydration.
The stress also made Sommerville subject to bursts of crying, headaches, and nightmares about bathrooms, being approached by men, and being physically assaulted and laughed at by them on a regular basis.
Over the course of the legal fight, Hobby Lobby changed its precondition for Sommerville’s use of the women’s restroom, arguing that Sommerville should undergo gender confirmation surgery and provide documentation, and then requiring her to submit a birth certificate reflecting her sex as female.
In December 2013, Hobby Lobby installed a unisex bathroom at the store, allowing employees and customers alike to use either the bathroom corresponding to their assigned sex at birth or the unisex bathroom, while Sommerville was only allowed to use the unisex bathroom.
Sommerville said that, despite the presence of an on-site unisex bathroom, she still felt singled out for different treatment because of her transgender status.
In 2019, the Human Rights Commission ruled that Hobby Lobby’s bathroom policy was unlawful and that the company had engaged in discrimination. An administrative law judge then issued a $220,000 judgment to Sommerville for emotional distress and payment of attorneys’ fees.
The three-judge panel of the Second District Appellate Court upheld that finding, ruling that Hobby Lobby had violated the state’s nondiscrimination law and upholding the monetary judgment.
“Given the interrelationship between ‘sex’ and gender identity in Illinois law, the record establishes that Sommerville’s sex is unquestionably female,” Justice Mary Seminara-Schostok wrote on behalf of the court. “She has undergone years of effort and expense to transition, and she appears to be and comports herself as a woman.
“Of even greater significance, her status of being female has been recognized not only by the governments of this state and the nation but also by Hobby Lobby itself, all of which have changed their records to acknowledge her female sex,” the ruling continues. “Given this recognition, Hobby Lobby cannot plausibly assert that it is denying Sommerville access to the women’s bathroom on the ground that she is not female.”
The court also rejected Hobby Lobby’s argument that a person’s sex is an “immutable condition” — something not backed up by the text of the Illinois Human Rights Act — or by Hobby Lobby’s own actions.
The court noted that Hobby Lobby’s changing of preconditions for Sommerville to use the restroom, such as producing a birth certificate reflecting her gender identity or proof she had undergone gender confirmation surgery, undermined the company’s claim that their belief was that gender is fixed at birth and cannot be changed, even by surgical intervention.
“Sommerville is female, just like the women who are permitted to use the women’s bathroom,” the ruling said. “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.) Thus, the Commission correctly found that Hobby Lobby unlawfully discriminated against Sommerville based on her gender identity, that is, because she is transgender.”
Even thought it’s only a state appellate court, the ruling marks a significant development in cases involving LGBTQ rights and the rights of transgender employees, coming on the heels of a Supreme Court ruling last year that declared discrimination based on gender identity a form of sex-based discrimination.
“This decision will have national implications and start the process of courts around the country addressing the issue of bathroom access,” Jacob Meister, an attorney representing Sommerville, told Bloomberg News.
Statewide LGBTQ rights organization Illinois, which had filed an amicus brief urging the court to find in favor of Sommerville, celebrated the court’s ruling, tweeting: “We at EI are inspired by & thankful to Meggan for her years of resilience & courage in this fight for her rights & the rights of all trans people in Illinois. Congratulations to Meggan and her legal team on this significant victory.”
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