Trump-appointed judge orders Southwest attorneys to take ‘religious liberty training’ from right-wing group

The lawyers must take an eight-hour session from Alliance Defending Freedom, an influential legal group behind anti-abortion and anti-LGBT+ litigation

Alex Woodward
Tuesday 08 August 2023 20:07 BST
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A federal judge in Texas has ordered attorneys for Southwest Airlines to take “religious-liberty training” from an influential right-wing Christian legal group behind anti-abortion policies and litigation targeting LGBT+ rights.

US District Judge Brantley Starr – a member of the Federalist Society who was appointed to the bench by Donald Trump in 2019 – issued additional sanctions in an employment law case on 7 August that directs the airline’s lawyers to take eight hours of instruction from Alliance Defending Freedom, which is designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The group is among “esteemed non-profit organizations that are dedicated to preserving free speech and religious freedom,” according to the judge’s order, first reported by Chris Geidner.

While Alliance Defending Freedom promotes “religious freedom” principles, the group has played a critical role in legal efforts to incorporate Christianity into government, schools and public life. At the Supreme Court, the group supported the legal effort to overturn Roe v Wade and litigated a case in front of the justices to argue that a website designer has a First Amendment right to reject LGBT+ couples. The group is currently leading efforts to block the federal government’s long-standing approval of a widely used abortion drug.

But Alliance Defending Freedom is not involved in this case, and it is unclear why the judge specifically recommended the group. The woman who sued Southwest did not make any request that its employees undergo “religious liberty” training.

“ADF is pleased that the judge and jury protected the religious speech of the employee in this case,” according to a statement from chief legal counsel Jim Campbell shared with The Independent.

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

The case stems from flight attendant Charlene Carter’s firing in 2017 after she sent anti-abortion messages to her union’s former president. She argued that the company discriminated against her religious beliefs. Following a jury verdict, the judge ordered that she be reinstated last year.

Judge Starr also ordered Southwest to issue a statement to all employees stressing that the company “may not” engage in religious discrimination. Southwest’s subsequent statement said the company “does not” do that.

The judge reprimanded the company for the change in language and mulled additional sanctions, including “religious liberty training”, in May – one month after that another Trump-appointed judge in the North District of Texas ruled in the Alliance Defending Freedom’s favour in a case that threatens access to a critical abortion drug.

Southwest is still appealing the jury verdict.

In his latest order, the judge wrote that “religious liberty training” amounts to the “least restrictive means of achieving compliance” with the court’s order, and that the Alliance Defending Freedom “has conducted such training in the past, and the Court deems that appropriate here.”

Under the order, Southwest is responsible for transporting a representative of the group to Dallas along with “any food, accommodation, or other travel expenses”.

That training must be completed by 23 August.

The Independent has requested comment TWU Local 556, the Union of Southwest Airlines Flight Attendants.

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