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Hobby Lobby ordered to pay $220K for not allowing trans employee to use women's restroom

hobby lobby
(Photo: Flickr Creative Commons)

A state court has ordered the Christian-owned craft store chain Hobby Lobby to pay over $200,000 in fines for refusing to allow one of its trans-identified employees to use the women’s bathroom. 

A three-judge Illinois appellate court panel unanimously ruled Friday that Hobby Lobby violated the Illinois Human Rights Act by declining to allow one of its employees to use the bathroom that corresponds with the person's gender identity instead of biological sex.

Friday’s ruling reinforces an earlier conclusion of the Illinois Human Rights Commission. The company was ordered to pay its longtime employee $220,000 in attorneys’ fees for “emotional distress.” The company argued the fine was excessive. However, the court did not find Hobby Lobby's arguments persuasive. 

The retail chain, owned by the Green family, has become known for its adherence to Christian principles.

As explained in the decision, the employee, a biological male who now identifies as Meggan Sommerville, began working for Hobby Lobby in 1998.

In 2007, while working as an employee of the Hobby Lobby in East Aurora, Sommerville began to transition from male to female.

The transition became official in 2010 when Sommerville “formally informed Hobby Lobby of her transition and her intent to begin using the women’s bathroom at the store.” Sommerville presented the store with an updated driver’s license, Social Security card and name change court order.

Although Hobby Lobby changed Sommerville’s personnel records and benefits information to reflect a "female identity,” the store never allowed the employee to use the women’s restroom over the past decade.

Sommerville has faced disciplinary action for using the women’s bathroom.

The East Aurora store did install a unisex restroom in 2013, enabling store employees and customers to “use either the bathroom corresponding to their [biological sex] or the unisex bathroom.”

Sommerville contended, however, that being forced to use the unisex bathroom made it seem as if “they were segregating me,” adding, “I felt as though there were the guys, the gals, and then me.”

“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," the court maintained. "If every employee and customer except Sommerville may use either the unisex bathroom or the bathroom corresponding to their sex, but Sommerville’s choices are limited to the unisex bathroom or a bathroom that does not correspond to her sex, Hobby Lobby is still discriminating unlawfully."

Sommerville alleged that the inability to use the women’s restroom led to severe mental anguish, and the court agreed. It ruled that Hobby Lobby’s actions violated a law barring “discrimination against any individual because of his or her ... [sex], or sexual orientation ... in connection with employment ... and the ability of public accommodations.” 

Additionally, the law makes it illegal for “any employer to ... segregate, or act with respect to ... discipline ... or terms, privileges or conditions of employment on the basis of unlawful discrimination” and for places of public accommodation to “deny or refuse to another the full and equal enjoyment of the facilities.”

The court emphasized that “discrimination against a person because of his or her actual perceived ... sex ... [or] sexual orientation” constitutes “unlawful discrimination.” 

“Hobby Lobby’s conduct thus falls squarely within the definition of unlawful discrimination under the Act, as it treats Sommerville differently from all other women who work or shop at its store, solely on the basis that her gender identity is not ‘traditionally associated with’ her ‘designated sex at birth,’” the court argued. “The Commission did not err in finding that Hobby Lobby’s conduct of denying Sommerville access to its women’s bathroom violated her civil rights under articles 2 and 5 of the Act.” 

While the court’s opinion never discussed Hobby Lobby’s Christian faith or religious beliefs, it did mention that the arts-and-crafts chain sees “an individual’s ‘sex’ — the status of being male or female” as “an immutable condition.”

Hobby Lobby gained national recognition for citing its religious beliefs when objecting to the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. The mandate forced employers to cover their employees’ birth control in employer-sponsored healthcare packages. 

Hobby Lobby asserted that providing its employees with contraception coverage, including abortion-inducing drugs, would violate the company’s sincerely held religious beliefs.

In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Hobby Lobby v. Burwell that companies could refuse to provide contraception for their employees if doing so violated their religious beliefs. 

The Illinois appellate court’s ruling against Hobby Lobby comes as congressional Democrats are pushing for the passage of the Equality Act, which would enshrine nondiscrimination protections for the LGBT community into federal law. The language of the Equality Act is similar to that of the Illinois Human Rights Act. Many conservatives have expressed concern about its implications for religious liberty. 

Ryan Foley is a reporter for The Christian Post. He can be reached at: ryan.foley@christianpost.com

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