Of Course Hobby Lobby Discriminates Against Trans Workers, Too

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July 15 2014 2:45 PM

Of Course Hobby Lobby Discriminates Against Trans Workers, Too

480530543-sign-is-posted-on-the-exterior-of-a-hobby-lobby-store
A Hobby Lobby store in Antioch, California.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s terrible Hobby Lobby ruling, Ross Douthat—staunch defender of legalized discrimination dressed up as “pluralism” or “dissent”—brilliantly trolled the left with a column titled “A Company Liberals Could Love.” In the piece, Douthat argued that progressives should admire Hobby Lobby’s “moral calling” and “do-gooder policies,” its relatively high wages and charitable giving. (Chief among Hobby Lobby’s charity work: massive contributions to extremist anti-gay groups.) Never mind that the company refuses to let women buy IUDs through their own insurance; because its founders have some ethical code, Douthat claims, progressives should be lauding it.

I remembered Douthat’s column when I read a recent Nation story about a transgender employee at a crafts supply store in Illinois who is barred from using the bathroom at work. Although the employee, Meggan Sommerville, has legally transitioned in the eyes of the state, her employers refuse to let her use the women’s restroom in the store. Sommerville has undergone hormone therapy and changed her gender on all legal documents, including her birth certificate. But unless she “undergo[es] genital reconstruction surgery,” her bosses insist on denying her entry into the appropriate facilities. The name of Sommerville’s employer? Hobby Lobby.

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When Sommerville took her case to court, Hobby Lobby doubled down, stating that it was within its rights to deny trans employees bathroom access. The company hasn’t formally cited its religious beliefs yet; for now, it’s asserting that its actions don’t violate Illinois’ Human Rights Act, which contains somewhat ambiguous bathroom rights for trans people. But as the Nation’s Michelle Chen notes, religious objections plainly lie behind Hobby Lobby’s anti-trans policies. There’s no real reason for the company to contest the reality of Sommerville’s gender—which state and federal law recognize as female—except for antiquated, religious-based ideas about gender identity.

Alarming as this strike against modern notions of equality may be, it is surely unsurprising. Hobby Lobby’s opposition to certain contraceptives, after all, was its own form of discriminatory treatment, dictating to women (and only women) what health care choices were permissible to their bosses. This paternalistic meddling is a flagrant denial of equality; Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg suggested as much in her dissent in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, asserting that women’s “ability to control their reproductive lives” has been vital to the “ability of women to participate equally” in all realms of society. Hobby Lobby’s discrimination against trans workers springs from the same diseased root that sprouted its opposition to women controlling their own bodies. Both instances are forms of sex discrimination, betraying a deep mistrust of minorities’ power to define their own destinies.  

This, then, is the company that Douthat is telling liberals they should love: A discriminatory corporation that denies female and trans workers the basic right of bodily autonomy. A world in which companies with religious owners can legally demean their employees is apparently Douthat’s pluralist utopia; he recasts Hobby Lobby’s sexist practices as “different understandings of social justice.” If you think discrimination counts as “social justice,” then by all means, buy your yarn at Hobby Lobby. But if you think a company has no business telling trans employees what gender they really are and what birth control female employees are allowed to buy, then please: Buy your crafts elsewhere.  

Mark Joseph Stern is a writer for Slate. He covers science, the law, and LGBTQ issues.

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