Southwest Airlines lawyers ordered to receive religious-liberty training, raising concerns about the instructor choice.

Southwest Airlines lawyers ordered to receive religious-liberty training, raising concerns about the instructor choice.

Judge Orders Lawyers to Undergo Religious Training – Southwest Airlines Faces Controversy

Southwest Airlines

U.S. District Judge Brantley Starr recently made a decision that has garnered significant attention and controversy. After ruling that Southwest Airlines was in contempt of court for defying a previous order in a case involving a flight attendant who claimed she was fired for expressing her opposition to abortion, Judge Starr ordered three of the airline’s lawyers to undergo religious liberty training. However, it is the choice of the training group, the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), that has raised eyebrows and sparked criticism.

Critics argue that if Judge Starr felt religious training was necessary, he should have chosen a less polarizing group to conduct it. The ADF, known for opposing abortion, defending individuals who refuse to work on same-sex marriages, and seeking to limit transgender rights, is seen by many as a controversial and narrow voice in the conversation surrounding religious freedom. The group frequently cites First Amendment rights in its litigation and has achieved high-profile court victories.

The decision to involve the ADF in the religious training has led to speculation and debate regarding the implications for Southwest’s lawyers. Some experts, such as Douglas Laycock, an authority on religious-liberty law, suggest that the airline could argue that ADF’s extreme views on these issues would lead to distorted training. Others, like David Lopez, former general counsel of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, believe Southwest might contend that training by a conservative Christian group violates the religious rights of its lawyers, especially if they follow different faiths or have no religious affiliation.

The controversy surrounding the choice of the ADF as the training provider highlights the broader issues at play. Steven Collis, director of a law and religion clinic at the University of Texas at Austin, remarks that while it is within a judge’s authority to order this kind of training, it raises questions when it is conducted by a partisan group. Collis suggests that using a more neutral academic would have avoided criticism in this case.

Judge Starr himself is an interesting figure in this story. Nominated by former President Donald Trump and confirmed by the Senate in a party-line vote, he has a background rooted in conservative values. As a member of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group, Judge Starr held senior positions in the Texas Attorney General’s office, where he worked on controversial cases involving immigration, transgender rights, and sanctuary cities.

The Southwest Airlines case that led to Judge Starr’s ruling revolves around the termination of flight attendant Charlene Carter. Carter was fired after posting messages on social media and privately messaging the president of the flight attendant’s union, criticizing their attendance at an anti-Trump, pro-abortion-rights march. The case proceeded to arbitration, where Carter initially lost, leading her to file a lawsuit. Last year, a jury awarded her $5.1 million from Southwest Airlines and the union. Judge Starr later reduced the judgment to about $800,000 to comply with federal limits on punitive damages.

Southwest Airlines has appealed both the judgment and Judge Starr’s sanctions, which include requiring the airline to email a statement to its flight attendants declaring that the company cannot discriminate based on employees’ religious beliefs. Southwest argues that the training by the ADF violates the religious rights of its lawyers and has challenged the decision before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The controversy surrounding Judge Starr’s ruling serves as a reminder of the complex and contentious nature of religious liberty in the legal system. While judges have the authority to order additional measures, such as training, to ensure compliance with their orders, the choice of training provider can raise concerns about bias and the protection of individual rights. As Southwest Airlines continues to contest the ruling, the outcome of this case will have far-reaching implications for religious freedom and legal training in the future.