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  WINDY CITY TIMES

Hobby Lobby still fighting to deny trans* woman's rights
by Gretchen Rachel Blickensderfer
2014-07-16

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In a June 30 ruling in favor of the religious beliefs of national chain Hobby Lobby superseding contraceptive care for its female employees, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito determined that "corporations are people."

"When rights, whether constitutional or statutory, are extended to corporations, the purpose is to protect the rights of these people," he said.

Yet there is one person—a Christian woman who has worked in the Framing department at the Aurora, Illinois, branch of Hobby Lobby for 16 years, maintaining a substantial base of loyal customers who frequent the store specifically for her skill and services—who says her human rights have been violated by the company since July 2010.

Meggan Sommerville first walked into the then-brand-new Lombard, Illinois, Hobby Lobby in 1998 having been jobless for almost six months. With her unemployment compensation about to dry up and a young family to support, the reputation of the Oklahoma City-based organization appealed to her. "At Hobby Lobby, we value our customers and employees," a statement on its website reads, adding that the company is committed to "Serving our employees and their families by establishing a work environment and company policies that build character, strengthen individuals and nurture families."

Sommerville filled out an application on a Monday morning, was hired on the spot and reported for work two days later. Shortly after she began, she was offered the position of frame shop manager.

She took that job very seriously. Despite having no previous experience with the art, she learned all she could from her colleagues and worked with such tireless energy that she eventually became an indispensible resource to the specific needs of Hobby Lobby visitors looking to find the perfect frame for their art or photographs. In 2000, she transferred to the Aurora location. "I really enjoy the customers who come in here," she told Windy City Times. "Framing is such a technical and creative area that people want somebody who knows their stuff. I try to provide them with a really good finished product that they can enjoy for generations and they appreciate that. They come back hoping that I am there."

Despite opportunities to progress to positions such as store assistant manger or beyond, Sommerville was content to remain alongside her frame shop team, rewarded by a genuine feeling from those customers who breathed a sigh of relief to once again find her at her post. "My manager knows what an asset I am to the store," she said. "He gets people commenting [about me] and sees people coming in on a regular basis."

Meanwhile, framing became a hobby of Sommerville's, along with jewelry-making and her own store catered perfectly to those needs.

In 2009, Sommerville had begun hormone replacement therapy to transition from male to female. By early 2010 her customers had begun to notice. "About half of them were calling me 'she' and 'her' or 'that woman back in the framing department,'" Sommerville remembered. "That was kind of the tipping point when I knew it was time and I could live my life without people reading me [as male]."

She sat down with her supervisors to have the conversation that many trans* people recall fearing as much as coming out to their families. "It was my impression that it went smoothly," Sommerville said. "And that my manager at the time would contact Human Resources and find out what needed to be done."

Her conversation with her family was another matter. She was thrown out of the house and remained homeless for almost two months. Meanwhile, her problems at work were only just beginning.

Sommerville legally changed her name and gender marker July 12, 2010. She fastidiously went through each painstaking step in the process. Her driver's license and identification all said that she was female. She carried a letter from Howard Brown Health Center requesting safe passage as that gender. The following day, she went back into work and was told that she would not be permitted to use the women's restroom and that she would have to continue using the men's. "I asked them 'Why?'" Sommerville said. "I was not given a reason and that if I had a problem with it, I had to take it up with HR. I attempted to and they said that 'if you can find legal precedent saying that we should allow you to use the women's restroom, then present it'."

Devastated, Sommerville spent the rest of the day just trying to keep from collapsing in tears. She eventually presented Hobby Lobby's human-resources department with both her safe-passage letter and a copy of the Illinois Human Rights Act assuring access to public accommodations regardless of gender identity. "Still nothing," Sommerville recalled. "They were giving me the class-A runaround. I felt like I didn't matter and that they weren't taking me seriously. I was stuck between a rock and hard place and I was just being crushed."

The Aurora location maintained only two restrooms at the time. Both the male and female facilities were used by both employees and customers. Humiliated and wary of making her customers uncomfortable by seeing her use the men's room, Sommerville tried to severely curb her fluid intake in order to avoid having to go to the bathroom. If needed, she would walk across the parking lot to a fast-food restaurant, but that meant waiting for her lunch break—sometimes six hours from the moment she clocked in. But there were times it was just unavoidable. Two years ago, she was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, and symptoms include an increase in urinary urgency. "I had to go covertly," Sommerville said. "If there was somebody in there, I would have to wait. The last thing I wanted was a compliant, or to make a scene, or worse yet, for somebody to be hostile."

But there was more. Her bosses made it clear to Sommerville that she was not to use the female restroom either as an employee or as a customer. When she tried to use that facility off the clock, she was written up. "They don't care whether I'm a customer or not," she said. "I am not allowed to use the women's restroom period."

In 2012, Sommerville filed a complaint with the Illinois Department of Human Rights ( IDHR ). Her case was dismissed with the IDHR citing insubstantial evidence. ( Note: Windy City Times published a story on the decision by reporter Kate Sosin. ) That story was the catalyst for Sommerville to eventually be put in touch with Chicago attorneys Jacob J. Meister and Katherine Eder.

"Katie and I looked at this case and wanted to handle it," Meister said. "It's just too important." He added that ultimately Hobby Lobby has taken the position that Sommerville must show them proof of her receiving gender reassignment surgery. This further contravenes the Illinois Human Rights Act which does not demand the procedure to have taken place prior to access.

"At various times they have come up with different explanations for why they refuse to allow Meggan to use the women's room," Meister said. "But what it basically comes down to is they don't like the State of Illinois law and they say it's ambiguous."

Meister added that, in his opinion, there is no ambiguity about the act at all. "When it comes to an employee such as Meggan who gets a government issued ID that identifies her as female, at very minimum, it's not Hobby Lobby's decision to make. The Secretary of State of Illinois recognizes her as a female. Being forced to use the men's room is damaging to her. I don't think Hobby Lobby knows it or cares that they are doing medical injury and medical damage to her."

Meister has filed two complaints on Sommerville's behalf to the Illinois Human Rights Commission alleging discrimination in both employment and public accommodation. He believes that the fact that Hobby Lobby has also denied Sommerville access to the female restroom as a customer sets a precedent that could have serious implications for any trans* individual who walks into one the company's stores.

While Hobby Lobby have specifically not stated their Christian beliefs as a motivating decision in Meggan's case, they have made clear on their website that they operate the company "in a manner consistent with biblical principles."

In March 2014, Salon.com published a Schedule B tax form from the National Christian Charitable Foundation detailing a combined "nearly $65 million in contributions" from both Hobby Lobby CFO Jon Cargill and a Hobby Lobby affiliate company. According to Salon.com, The National Christian Charitable Foundation gave "a number of sizable grants to the Center for Arizona Policy and the Alliance Defending Freedom, issued between 2002 and 2011."

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Alliance Defending Freedom maintains a staff of 44 lawyers and has a record of "sharp anti gay bigotry." It is one of six groups which have "put effort into their anti-LGBT work in other nations."

Meister, Eder and Sommerville are prepared to take the case as far as it needs to go. "Meggan deserves that," Meister said. "She is doing something that very few people would do which is stand up to her long-term employer and fight for her rights. She still has to work there every day."

It could be a long fight. "Hobby Lobby is being absolutely horrible," Meister said, referring to an endless series of delay tactics on the part of the company. "They've been less than forthcoming with documents and information. It took them months just to provide basic documents like the company employee handbook. We had to get an order for them to produce it."

Sommerville says she is sticking with both the case and her employer for two reasons. "I think what Hobby Lobby has done to me is wrong," she asserted. "It's just not me that they are doing this to, it is potentially any trans* person who wants to go to work for them. The law is the law and you can't just circumvent it."

The other reason is her customers. "They love what I do for them. They support me personally," she said.

Interestingly, the actions of her Christian employer have done nothing to the foundation of Sommerville's faith. In her blog "Trans Girl at the Cross" ( www.chicagonow.com/trans-girl-cross ), she writes, "The question of how I justify or defend taking the steps to transition my life and live authentically as the person I know God wants me to be is also about being in a relationship.  And that should be true for every single person that calls themselves a Christian."

Meanwhile, in her dissent to the majority June 30 ruling, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg wrote, "The Court's determination that [the Religious Freedom Restoration Act] RFRA extends to for-profit corporations is bound to have untoward effects. The Court, I fear, has ventured into a minefield."


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