Court orders lawyers for Southwest Airlines to take religious freedom classes

Southwest Airlines Credit: StacieStauffSmith Photos/Shutterstock

A Texas judge ordered Southwest Airlines to take religious freedom training from the faith-based legal advocacy organization the Alliance Defending Freedom after the airline failed to inform employees of their freedom to practice their religion. 

Southwest flight attendant Charlene Carter had been fired by the airline after criticizing the president of her worker’s union for attending the pro-abortion Women’s March in Washington, D.C., in 2017.

Carter sued and won a combined $5 million from the airline and the Transport Workers Union Local 556 in the dispute, with the court finding that her speech against the union president was protected under federal statute. She was also subsequently reinstated as a flight attendant for the company.

The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas further ordered Southwest to inform its workers that the company “may not discriminate against Southwest flight attendants for their religious practices and beliefs.” In its ruling on Monday, the district court said Southwest “didn’t come close to complying with the court’s order.”

Instead of following the court’s directive to inform its employees that it “may not” discriminate against them, Southwest instead told workers that it “does not” discriminate, Monday’s ruling said. 

“It’s hard to see how Southwest could have violated the notice requirement more,” the court said in its ruling.

District Judge Brantley Starr, a Trump appointee, underscored the nature of Southwest’s violation by invoking the biblical account of the Garden of Eden: “After God told Adam, ‘[Y]ou must not eat from the tree [in the middle of the garden],’ imagine Adam telling God, ‘I do not eat from the tree in the middle of the garden’ — while an apple core rests at his feet.”

The ruling said that the airline company “needs to understand, when communicating with its employees, that federal protections for religious freedom override any company civility policy.” 

The court stated that “training on religious freedom for three lawyers at Southwest the court finds responsible … is the least restrictive means of achieving compliance with the court’s order.”

Starr ordered the lawyers to attend an eight-hour religious freedom training course supplied by the Alliance Defending Freedom. The legal advocacy organization is known for its advocacy of religious freedom and conservative political efforts. It was founded in 1993 by several major figures in the U.S. Christian conservative movement, including James Dobson and Alan Sears.

In addition, the court’s ruling stated that the airline would be required to fly an ADF representative to Dallas for the training and will be “responsible for any food, accommodation, or other travel expenses for ADF’s representative.” The training must be completed by Aug. 28. 

The ruling also ordered Southwest to pay for Carter’s legal fees related to the compliance dispute. 

In an email to CNA, Southwest Airlines said it planned “to appeal the recent court order and are in the process of appealing the underlying judgment to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.”

Alliance Defending Freedom Chief Legal Counsel Jim Campbell, meanwhile, told CNA that the group was “pleased that the judge and jury protected the religious speech of the employee in this case.” 

“Every company should respect religious liberty and diverse viewpoints in the workplace,” Campbell said. “We are happy to help Southwest achieve that goal by providing training on Title VII and other applicable laws barring religious discrimination.”

This article has been updated.

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