Hobby Lobby Needs Proof Of Genital Surgery To Let Trans Woman Use Ladies’ Restroom

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Hobby Lobby is a chain of craft stores running in accordance with Christian values. Recently, the Supreme Court ruled in the company’s favor to not provide employee health insurance that covers certain types of birth control.

After this victory, many supportive customers came into the Aurora, Illinois Hobby Lobby store, where Meggan Sommerville is an employee, to voice their congratulations. Sommerville has been an employee at the craft store for 16 years and generally enjoys working there. However, she has found the congratulations from customers difficult to swallow. She said:

“I’d smile and nod and say, ‘Yes, it’s a victory for the company,’ and then I’d push my real feelings down and not think about it anymore.” [source]

That’s because Sommerville is a transgender woman. In 2011, she filed a complaint against Hobby Lobby with the Illinois Department of Human Rights because the company wouldn’t let her use the woman’s bathroom. Although she was never given a real explanation, Sommerville sees a connection with Hobby Lobby’s exemption from covering some contraceptions because of its Christian principles. In an interview with The Huffington Post, Sommerville said:

“I don’t believe that any company has the right to deny access to appropriate medical care, same as the reason why I don’t believe that they have the right to deny me access to the washroom. No company has the right to dictate what is decided between me and my doctor.” [source]

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Sommerville made her transition to living as a woman in 2010, and colleagues and management at Hobby Lobby were supportive and did their best to use her new name and correct pronoun. After she formally changed her name in court and received a new driver’s license and Social Security card, the store made her a new name tag to match her new identity. However, the restroom was the one issue Hobby Lobby would not budge on.

Management insisted that Sommerville continue to use the men’s restroom, and would only be able to use the women’s restroom after providing proof that she had undergone genital reconstruction surgery. For the record, both the federal government nor the state of Illinois require genital reconstructive surgery for someone to legally change genders. Sommerville said:

“I was devastated. I just want to be treated like all the other women. To do anything else diminishes who I am in the eyes of customers and employees.” [source]

Because of the company’s restroom stance, going to the bathroom became a stressful and embarrassing ordeal for Sommerville. She always had to worry about outing herself to customers or colleagues that were not aware of her history.

 “There have been a few times when a customer has come in and I have essentially been trapped in the stall while I wait for the person to leave. The stories of trans women that have come under attack are always on my mind when I am forced to use the men’s room. At the very least, I don’t want to make a scene.” [source]

Sommerville says that Hobby Lobby has discriminated against her and “subjected her to unequal terms and conditions due to her gender identity.” Her case is awaiting a ruling from the Illinois Human Rights Commission. Hobby Lobby has declined to comment on the case.

Hobby Lobby doesn’t deny that religious principles have an influence in the company’s refusal to allow Sommerville to use the women’s restroom. However, Sommerville’s lawyer, Jacob Meister, notes that Hobby Lobby’s executives and affiliated companies give millions of dollars to organizations and causes that oppose LGBT rights and advance conservative Christian principles. Meister said:

“I think the facts speak for themselves. Hobby Lobby has very actively sought to impose what it believes the law should be wherever possible, and it has thrown a lot of money behind these efforts. I have absolutely no possible explanation for why they would so flagrantly ignore what’s very clear in Illinois law. Meggan is a female, she’s been full-time for many years, and they will not allow her to use the women’s restroom, which is something that is afforded to every female employee that they have except for Meggan, every female customer they have except for transgender folk.” [source]

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Since the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores ruling on June 30th, LGBT advocates and legal experts have been trying to gauge whether Justice Samuel Alito Jr.’s majority opinion gives companies with religious affiliations free reign to discriminate against LGBT people. Although legal director at the Transgender Law Center, Ilona Turner believes it doesn’t, she said:

“I could imagine that employers will attempt nonetheless to try to push the boundaries of that decision, to argue that their religious values give them a right to discriminate.” [source]

However, Sommerville’s issue isn’t just about Hobby Lobby – it is a common issue that transgender people face in the workplace. Although religion is usually not mentioned in connection with similar lawsuits and scenarios, Sommerville believes it is often “in the background.”

Sommerville, a Christian herself, is hopeful that her human rights complaint will help create a more open and tolerant culture at Hobby Lobby. She said:

“I think any time somebody stands up for their rights to be respected, to be treated equally, it can make a change.” [source]