An appeals court ruling that Hobby Lobby violated Illinois anti-discrimination law by denying a transgender employee access to a women’s washroom could have nationwide implications, experts say.
Meggan Sommerville, a trans woman who has worked at a Hobby Lobby store in Aurora for over 20 years, has been denied access to the store’s women’s room since her transition to work in 2010. As a result, she has had recurring anxiety and nightmares and was forced to limit her fluid intake, the documents said.
The Illinois 2nd District Court of Appeals on Friday upheld a lower court ruling that found the craft chain violated both Illinois human rights law as an employer and as a place of public accommodation.
“Sommerville is a woman, as are women allowed to use the female toilet,” the three-judge panel said in its ruling. “The only reason Sommerville is not allowed to use the women’s washroom is because she is a transgender woman. “
The ruling is a first impression, meaning it presents a legal issue that has never been decided within the jurisdiction of the tribunal.
“They followed the law,” Sommerville, 51, told Forbes. “This is a previous case in Illinois because human rights law has never been tested in this way in Illinois, and indeed in the country.”
Jim Bennett, director of the Illinois Department of Human Rights, said the ruling underscored that trans people in the state “have strong protection against discrimination.”
“Ms. Sommerville’s experience of discrimination is certainly not unique, as too many of our transgender friends and neighbors continue to face acts of discrimination and hate,” Bennett said in a statement. With this ruling, the IDHR has a clear path to enforce the Commission’s orders regarding trans rights. “
Jacob Meister, who represented Sommerville, went further, telling Bloomberg Law that the ruling had national implications and “will kick off the process in courts across the country to address the issue of toilet access.”
Camilla Taylor, director of litigation for LGBTQ legal advocacy group Lambda Legal, agrees the ruling could have a broad impact in various fields and jurisdictions.
“I think other states will generally be able to cite this ruling, because of its scope,” Taylor said. “It’s not just about employment. It is the public policy of the State of Illinois. The court went out of its way to eliminate all justifications for treating trans people differently in public. This clearly showed that there was no justification.
While the 2020 Supreme Court decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, determined that sex discrimination includes sexual orientation and gender identity, it did not address access to gender-separated sports facilities, services or teams.
“You can’t pretend it’s not sex discrimination to deny someone access to a bathroom or a changing room,” Taylor said.
Not only could the ruling be used by opponents of the so-called toilet bills, she added, but it could be relevant to the legal fight against legislation banning transgender girls from playing in venues. women’s sports teams.
At least nine states have enacted such sports bans, according to the Movement Advancement Project.
“It will have big ramifications in all kinds of aspects of life – in education, in business, in gyms and in sports,” Taylor said. “It is revealing of the application of the principles of non-discrimination to areas of gender segregation. It is clear that gender identity determines sex.
Hobby Lobby could appeal the decision to the Illinois Supreme Court and theoretically go all the way to the United States Supreme Court. Lawyer Whitman Brisky, who represented the company, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The 2021 legislative session set a record for anti-transgender bills, according to the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBTQ rights group: Nearly 70 measures have been introduced in at least 30 states that would ban trans youth from participate in sports compatible with their gender identity, and at least 15 bills have been introduced that would prohibit trans people from accessing washrooms or locker rooms that match their gender identity.
The judiciary, however, has been more supportive: In addition to Bostock, the Supreme Court in June refused to consider a decision by the U.S. 4th Court of Appeals that ruled that transgender student Gavin Grimm had the constitutional right to use the boys’ washrooms at his school in Virginia.
The lower court ruled that policies prohibiting transgender students from accessing toilets that match their gender identity violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment and Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments.