Hobby Lobby violated an Illinois anti-discrimination law when it prohibited a biological male employee who identifies as female from using the women’s restroom, an appeals court ruled Friday.
The unanimous decision by a three-judge state appeals court panel upheld a ruling by the state’s Human Rights Commission, which had fined Hobby Lobby $220,000 and ruled the company violated the Illinois Human Rights Act when its East Aurora, Ill., store prohibited Meggan Sommerville – a transgender woman – from using the women’s restroom. The store instead allowed her to use a unisex restroom.
The $220,000 was to cover Sommerville’s emotional distress and attorney’s fees.
Somerville was hired in 1998 and began transitioning in 2007, wearing female clothes and undergoing medical treatment.
The Illinois Human Rights Act prohibits discrimination based on gender identity in employment and public accommodations.
“Hobby Lobby’s conduct ... 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 ruled. “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.”
Hobby Lobby, a company founded by a Christian family, asserted that an individual’s sex cannot be changed. The court, though, disagreed.
The store installed a unisex restroom for Sommerville and others to use. But the court ruled Sommerville should nevertheless be able to use the women’s restroom – even if access to a unisex restroom was available.
“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 ruled. “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.”
The court upheld the decision and fines by the Human Rights Commission. It also remanded the case to the commission to determine “additional damages and attorney fees that may be due.”
Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/Joe Raedle/Staff
Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chronicle, the Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.