A new Hobby Lobby case may again put the company’s religious values to a legal test, and this time the issue has nothing to do with employee rights to contraception. This case is about the right to use a restroom.
While the U.S. Senate prepares a bill to override the recent Supreme Court decision holding that employers such as Hobby Lobby don’t have to provide insurance coverage for contraceptives if they feel that their religious beliefs would be violated, a new Hobby Lobby discrimination lawsuit is in the works that could test those beliefs even further.
Meggan Somerville has been a Hobby Lobby employee at the company’s Aurora, Illinois, store since 1998. At the time she was hired, and for the first 11 years she worked at Hobby Lobby, where she manages a frame shop, Sommerville was a man.
But in 2009, she legally changed her gender status to female. While she says that her fellow employees were generally supportive of her transition, and Hobby Lobby did not take any job action against her, she was soon “caught” using the women’s restroom — and hit with a written reprimand.
Five years later, she remains banned from the women’s restroom at Hobby Lobby. She says she has been told that unless she undergoes full gender reassignment surgery to reconstruct her genitals, she will not be permitted in the ladies room — even though the state of Illinois and Hobby Lobby itself recognize Sommerville as a woman in every other respect.
The company’s health insurance policies even cover her as a woman. She says that some of her hormonal treatments used in her gender transition were paid for under Hobby Lobby insurance.
Reconstructive genital surgery is not required for legal gender reassignment, and many transgender people elect not to go through the surgical process, sometimes because they can’t afford it, but often because they simply don’t want to have painful and risky surgery.
“I felt like someone had just basically eviscerated me. My whole world turned upside down,” says Somerville, describing her feelings at being slapped with “a written warning for insubordination” simply for doing something that all other women do.
In addition to a pending lawsuit against Hobby Lobby, Sommerville filed a complaint in 2011 with the Illinois Department of Human Rights.
“I’m just looking to be treated equally with every other female in the company—not just in the store, but in the company,” Sommerville told Newsweek. “If they recognize me as female for certain things, why can’t they recognize me as female for everything?”
Somerville also says in the complaint that she suffers humiliation and anxiety from being forced to sneak into the men’s restroom. Otherwise, she must find a restroom somewhere outside the store where she works.
“It’s no more possible for a transgender woman to use the men’s room than it is for any other woman to be able to use the men’s room,” says Jennifer Levi, director of the Transgender Right Project for the LGBT advocacy group GLAD.
According to The Christian News, which referred to Somerville as “he” in its report on her case, the transgender woman’s lawsuit may be part of a movement by homosexual and transgender groups” to “revoke the religious rights of companies like Hobby Lobby.”