Trump-appointed judge requires lawyers to undergo religious-liberty training by conservative Christian group in Southwest Airlines case.

Trump-appointed judge requires lawyers to undergo religious-liberty training by conservative Christian group in Southwest Airlines case.

Judge Orders Southwest Lawyers to Undergo Religious Liberty Training

Southwest Airlines

In a surprising turn of events, U.S. District Judge Brantley Starr has ordered three lawyers from Southwest Airlines to undergo religious-liberty training after ruling that the airline was in contempt of court. The contempt ruling is a result of Southwest defying a previous order from Judge Starr in a case involving a flight attendant who claimed she was fired for expressing her opposition to abortion, and subsequently sued and won against the airline.

However, critics argue that while training may be necessary, the judge should have chosen a less polarizing group to conduct it. The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) has been selected to provide the training, a move that has drawn attention due to the group’s stance on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriages.

ADF has a history of defending the First Amendment rights of individuals and has secured several high-profile court victories. Their selection by Judge Starr has raised concerns among those who view the group as controversial and narrow in its interpretation of religious freedom. Despite requests for details about the training, ADF declined to provide information or make a representative available for an interview.

Southwest Airlines has appealed the judge’s sanctions, which include requiring Southwest to send an email to its flight attendants stating that the airline is not permitted to discriminate based on religious beliefs. Southwest is also in the process of appealing the jury verdict in favor of the flight attendant.

Legal experts suggest that Southwest could argue that training by a conservative Christian group violates the religious rights of its lawyers, particularly if any of them follow different faiths or have no religious beliefs at all. Douglas Laycock, a retired law professor and authority on religious-liberty law, believes that Southwest could claim ADF’s extreme views on certain issues might result in distorted training. Additionally, Southwest could argue that as a religious organization, requiring its lawyers to undergo training from ADF would violate their rights.

On the other hand, Steven Collis, director of a law and religion clinic, asserts that it is within a judge’s authority to order this kind of training. Nevertheless, he points out that Judge Starr could have avoided criticism by selecting a more neutral individual, such as an academic, to conduct the training.

Looking into Judge Starr’s background, he was nominated by former President Donald Trump in 2019 and confirmed by the Senate in a party-line vote. A member of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group, Starr has held senior positions in the Texas Attorney General’s office and has worked on various high-profile cases. His appointment as a judge brought attention due to his family connections, as he is the nephew of Kenneth Starr, who led the investigations into former President Bill Clinton.

The Southwest case that led to these sanctions originated from the airline’s decision to fire Charlene Carter, a flight attendant with over 20 years of experience, following a series of social media posts and private messages criticizing the president of the flight attendant’s union for attending an anti-Trump, pro-abortion rights march. Carter’s lawsuit against Southwest and the union resulted in a jury awarding her $5.1 million, which was later reduced by Judge Starr to comply with federal limits on punitive damages.

Both Southwest Airlines and the union are currently challenging the decision before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has yet to decide whether to hear the case. Carter is represented by lawyers from the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, an organization that argues against mandatory union dues for workers.

Mark Mix, the president of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, hopes that Judge Starr’s order provides hope to other independent-minded workers, emphasizing their right to express their religious dissent against union and company political agendas.

While the training ordered by Judge Starr raises questions and concerns, it highlights the ongoing debate surrounding religious freedom in the workplace. As this case develops, it will be interesting to see how the appeals process unfolds and what impact it may have on future legal decisions.