The Supreme Court’s decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Storesrevealed just how far the law now allows corporations to reach into women’s private lives. Now, another case against the same craft store chain is reaching into the ladies’ room as well.
Meggan Sommerville, a Hobby Lobby frameshop manager in Aurora, Illinois, has for years been shut out of the store’s bathroom because her boss insists that, as a trans woman, she cannot use the facilities. She is pressing a discrimination case with the Illinois Human Rights Commission, contending that the ban is both insulting and illegal under state laws barring discrimination in both employment and in public accommodations. The lockout has become a full-fledged civil rights battle—and perhaps the next legal showdown in the debate around corporate personhood, religion and civil rights at work.
A sixteen-year Hobby Lobby employee, Sommerville underwent her transition in 2010, and after informing her manager and having her legal identity changed, she says that her coworkers and customers have been supportive throughout the process. But for management, the bathroom door remains a bridge too far. The company’s persistent rejection of her demand for equal access seems to reflect the ideology that drove its Supreme Court crusade against contraceptive insurance mandates under the federal healthcare law. Hobby Lobby’s willingness to flout public mandates to impose conservative values suggests that bias against transgender workers may be another way the company tries to “live out our faith in the way we do business.”
As reported by Newsweek, Sommerville’s pending case, which was first brought in 2011 (and reinstated by the state Human Rights Commission after initially being dismissed by the Human Rights Department for lack of evidence), is arguably an even more explicit example of a culture war being waged in the workplace. According to the complaint, Hobby Lobby’s management states that unless she would “undergo genital reconstructive surgery” she would not receive equal treatment as a female employee.
When Sommerville showed up for work just after having her name officially changed, she recalls, “I was told I would not be allowed to use the women’s restroom even though I had legally changed my name… I was devastated. It was a knife-to-the-gut insult to me.”
(Many transgender people do not have surgery, out of choice or due to economic or medical barriers, and it is generally not necessary for official recognition.)