Bernier v. Turbocam: Religion Cannot Be a Justification for Employment Discrimination

A business owner’s religious beliefs must never be a legal justification to deprive an employee of necessary healthcare. But Lillian Bernier’s employer is trying to skirt its obligation to treat all its staff equally based on a claim of religious exemption. The company treats Lillian differently because she’s transgender, denying her equal healthcare benefits by refusing to cover her medically-necessary, transition-related care.

Lillian dedicates her time, expertise, and commitment to her job, and like anyone, she expects fairness and equal treatment to be part of the deal. That means equal pay for equal work and equal access to benefits from her employer — whatever the religious views of the company’s owner. Anything less than equal treatment is unfair and harmful discrimination, which violates state and federal law.

A photo of Lillian Bernier with her dog.
A photo of Lillian Bernier with her dog. Photo by Matty V clixpix

Lillian was born and raised in New Hampshire, where she is now raising two children. She supports her family as a machinist at Turbocam, Inc, where she’s worked since June 2019, making precision parts for the aviation and related industries. Turbocam is an international manufacturer of engine parts with over 900 employees. According to its website, Turbocam “exists as a business for the purpose of honoring God” and holds itself “accountable to God’s law expressed in the Bible.”

Lillian has been recognized for her dedication with multiple promotions and worked the night shift through the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing lockdowns. When she sought treatment for gender dysphoria in 2020, she discovered that her employer-funded medical plan excludes coverage for the healthcare she needs. As a result, she was forced to pay out of pocket for some necessary medical care and delayed scheduling recommended surgery, even though putting off her care goes against her doctor’s advice.

Lillian shouldn’t have to find another job just to get the healthcare she needs. She just wants to be treated equally to her colleagues. “I’m proud of my work as a machinist at Turbocam,” says Lillian. “Like everyone else, I rely on the pay and healthcare coverage from my job to support myself and my family. I’m just asking for fair coverage and to be treated the same as my coworkers.” When her employer refused to cover her care, Lillian came to GLAD for support.

GLAD filed a lawsuit on behalf of Lillian on December 16, 2022, Bernier v. Turbocam. In response to our filing, lawyers for the large, international, and highly profitable manufacturer claim Turbocam is acting consistent with its “Mission, faith and the law” to justify its blanket transgender healthcare exclusion. But our state and federal nondiscrimination laws require equal treatment in employment — including in the provision of benefits — and businesses should not be able to use the owner’s beliefs to defend mistreating LGBTQ+ employees in a job that has nothing to do with religion.

We are also suing a company that profits from Turbocam’s discriminatory health benefits plan. Health Plans, Inc., a Massachusetts-based Harvard Pilgrim insurance company, contracts with Turbocam to administer its health benefits plan. Without Health Plans, Inc.’s expertise and services, Turbocam’s unlawful employment practices would not be possible.

“Our client is seeking the same opportunity everyone deserves to do her job, take care of her health, and be treated fairly by her employer,” said GLAD Senior Director of Litigation Ben Klein when the lawsuit was filed. “Turbocam and Health Plans, Inc. are denying her equal employment benefits because she is a transgender woman. That’s wrong, and it violates the law.”

Turbocam has the responsibility that all employers do — to treat its employees equally and fairly. “Providing lesser health benefits to transgender workers is employment discrimination,” said GLAD Attorney Chris Erchull at the time of the filing. “By maintaining a blanket exclusion of coverage for healthcare related to gender transition, Turbocam is trying to sidestep the law. Lillian has dedicated her time and energy to the company, including working onsite throughout the COVID pandemic. She is simply asking to be treated with the same dignity, humanity, and fairness as other employees.”

Lillian should be treated the same as her coworkers and be able to get the healthcare her doctor recommends. As our lawsuit continues, GLAD will work to ensure that she and other employees can make decisions about their health without their employer interfering and that religion is not used as a justification for discrimination.

This story was originally published in the Summer 2023 GLAD Briefs newsletter. Read more.