A federal judge ordered Southwest Airlines lawyers to receive “religious liberty training” from conservative Christian legal groups, in a move that has sparked debate among legal scholars.
Critics say that if a judge thinks such training is necessary, he should find a less polarizing group to conduct it.
U.S. District Judge Brantley Starr made a decision He issued the order in a case involving a flight attendant who said she was fired for expressing opposition to abortion after ruling that Southwest was in contempt of court for violating an earlier order. She sued Southwest and won.
Starr, nominated by former President Donald Trump, said Southwest did not understand federal protections for religious freedom. So this week, he ordered three of the airline’s lawyers to undergo religious freedom training. He said the Alliance for the Defense of Freedom (ADF) was “particularly well-suited” for training.
The group garners attention and notable court victories — against abortion, in defense of abortion rights Baker and a web designer They don’t want to commit to same-sex marriage and seek to limit the rights of trans people. It often invokes First Amendment rights in lawsuits.
ADF declined to describe its training or send a representative for an interview. “The judge’s order requires the ADF to provide training in religious freedom law, not religious doctrine,” its chief legal counsel, Jim Campbell, said in an emailed statement. , they cannot provide legal guidance, which is baseless.”
Southwest has appealed Starr’s sanctions, which also included emailing a statement from the judge to its flight attendants saying the airline must not discriminate based on employees’ religious beliefs. The Dallas-based airline has appealed the jury’s verdict in favor of the flight attendants.
David Lopez, who was general counsel to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission during the Obama administration, said Southwest could argue that the training by conservative Christian groups violated the religious rights of its lawyers, especially if the lawyers practiced other faiths or fundamental beliefs. Words of disbelief.
Lopez said the EEOC often insists on training employers found to be discriminatory, but the agency and companies agree on who should do the training.
“What’s going on here, I’ve never seen it,” said Lopez, now a Rutgers law professor.
Lopez said the ADF is “only one voice” when it comes to religious freedom, and “many people see their voice as very controversial and very narrow.”
Douglas Laycock, a religious liberty law authority and recently retired University of Virginia law professor, said the judge could order additional measures, such as training, to ensure the defendant complies with the rest of the order, but Southwest still has avenues to appeal .
Laycock said Southwest could argue that “there is a reason why the Australian Defense Force has extreme views on these issues and would provide distorted training”. Or, he said, the airline could argue that the ADF is essentially a religious organization and that requiring Southwest’s lawyers to be trained by the organization would violate their rights.
“The ADF claims to be a religious freedom organization, but it’s actually a Christian organization,” Laycock said. “It’s less interested in other people’s religious freedom.”
Steven Collis, director of the Law and Religion Clinic at the University of Texas at Austin, said judges have the authority to order such training.
“I do think it’s problematic to order that training be conducted by a group that is clearly partisan on issues related to religious freedom,” Collis added. “He could have avoided criticism by ordering this to someone a little more neutral … using academics instead.”
Judge Starr was nominated by Trump in 2019 and confirmed in a 51-39 party-line vote in the then-Republican-controlled Senate.
Starr, the nephew of former federal judge Kenneth Starr, led the investigation into former President Bill Clinton that led to his impeachment over the sex scandal. Starr is a graduate of Abilene Christian University and earned a law degree from the University of Texas at Austin. Is the editor of the conservative law journal.
Starr previously held senior positions in the Texas Attorney General’s Office.according to a The questionnaire he filled out On the Senate Judiciary Committee, he has been involved in litigation against the Obama administration for requiring public schools to let transgender students decide which bathroom to use, defending state laws that bar immigrant sanctuary cities and suing to block plans to delay deportations. Some undocumented immigrants.
Starr has never served as a judge at any level before and is a member of the conservative legal group The Federalist Society.
The Southwest case stems from the airline’s decision to fire Charlene Carter, a flight attendant of more than 20 years, after a series of social media posts and private messages targeted the flight attendant union chief for participating in an anti-Trump, pro-Trump campaign. March on Washington for abortion rights in January 2017.
In one message, Carter told the union president, “You really are despicable in many ways,” and attached a video that allegedly showed an aborted fetus. An hour later, she posted another video of the aborted fetus.
Carter took the case to arbitration and lost.Then she sued, and last year a Dallas jury Award her $5.1 million From Southwest Airlines and the union. Starr later reduced the sentence He said about $800,000 would have to be paid to comply with federal punitive damages limits.
Both the airline and the union are challenging the case with the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which has yet to decide whether to hear the case.
Carter was represented by attorneys for the National Work Rights Legal Defense Foundation, which argues that workers represented by unions should not be required to pay dues.
Following Starr’s ruling this week, foundation chairman Mark Meeks said: “Hopefully this order brings hope to other independent-minded workers who express religious dissent against union and corporate political agendas.” Rights are not easily taken away.”