Retail giant Hobby Lobby loses dogged 11-year battle to ban trans woman from bathroom

Hobby Lobby storefront

Retail giant Hobby Lobby has lost its 11-year battle to ban a transgender woman from using the women’s bathroom while at work.

The Illinois Second District Appellate Court said in its Friday (13 August) ruling that Hobby Lobby unlawfully discriminated against Meggan Sommerville, 51, based on her gender identity.

The unanimous three-judge panel ruled the company violated Illinois law barring bias in employment and public accommodations. It also upheld a $220,000 judgement for emotional distress and attorneys’ fees against the retail giant.

The ruling also said that Sommerville, who still works for Hobby Lobby, is “unquestionably female”, and her “status of being female” has been recognised by the state and US government “but also by Hobby Lobby itself”, which has “changed their records to acknowledge her female sex”.

“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 ruled.

The court added: “Sommerville is female, just like the women who are permitted to use the women’s bathroom.

“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).”

Sommerville told Forbes in a phone interview that the court “stuck to the law”. She added that the ruling 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”.

“I think that, to me, was as much of a victory as anything else,” Somerville said. “That the law in Illinois is so clear that even conservative judges couldn’t go any other way with it.”

Jacob Meister, an attorney who represented Sommerville, told Bloomberg: “This decision will have national implications and start the process of courts around the country addressing the issue of bathroom access.”

Trans Hobby Lobby employee has been fighting for her right to use the bathroom at work since 2010

According to court documents, Meggan Sommerville started working for Hobby Lobby in July 1998, and she was transferred to the franchise’s East Aurora store a few years later.

She began transitioning in 2007 and began using her chosen name and dressing in her preferred clothing the in 2010 “without objection from Hobby Lobby”. In the same year, Somerville legally changed her name and received a new driver’s license and social security card – “both of which showed her new name and identified her as female”.

On 9 July 2010, Sommerville formally told Hobby Lobby of her transition and her “intent to begin using the women’s bathroom at the store”. Hobby Lobby updated her personnel records to reflect her female identity, but it refused to allow her to use the women’s bathroom.

Sommerville filed a complaint with the Illinois Rights Commission in 2013 after getting disciplined about entering the women’s bathroom, and the commission ruled in 2019 that Hobby Lobby’s bathroom policy was unlawful.

In court, Hobby Lobby argued 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”, according to court documents. But the court didn’t accept this argument as “Hobby Lobby itself recognises 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,” the court ruled.

The court also noted that Sommerville began “limiting her fluid intake and not eating breakfast” as a result of Hobby Lobby’s ban on her using the women’s bathroom at work. The ban also gave Sommerville “recurrent nightmares about bathrooms, being approached by men and being physically assaulted and laughed at by them”, the court said.

PinkNews has contacted attorneys for Hobby Lobby, Whitman Brisky and Terry S Lu, of Mauck & Baker, LLC, for comment.