U.S. District Judge Brantley Starr speaks at a 2017 Federalist Society conference (YouTube screengrab via Federalist Society). Inset: image of a Southwest Airlines aircraft (via Southwest Airlines).
A federal judge in Texas has ordered lawyers for Southwest Airlines to undergo “training on religious freedom” with a legal advocacy organization known for filing lawsuits in support of conservative causes.
The ruling, from U.S. District Judge Brantley David Starr — a 2019 Donald Trump appointee — came in the case of Charlene Carter, a former flight attendant for Southwest who sued the airline after it fired her for allegedly violating their policies about bullying and social media.
“Southwest’s speech and actions toward employees demonstrate a chronic failure to understand the role of federal protections for religious freedom,” Starr wrote in his scathing sanctions order.
His punishment: sending three Southwest lawyers to so-called “training on religious freedom” with the Alliance Defending Freedom, a far-right advocacy organization known for filing lawsuits aimed at rolling back the rights of gay, lesbian, and transgender people.
Southwest said that it had fired Carter, a 20-year employee, after she took to Facebook to express her displeasure over her colleagues’ attendance at the 2017 Women’s March in Washington, D.C., following Trump’s inauguration. According to court documents, Carter opposed the march because Planned Parenthood supported it, and she vehemently opposes abortion rights.
According to Southwest, Carter also sent multiple private Facebook messages to Audrey Stone, then the head of the local flight attendant union, about the march, alleging that union funds were supporting Stone’s and other union members’ participation. Southwest described those messages, which included graphic images and videos of aborted fetuses and accused Stone of supporting murder, as “hostile,” and Stone herself had found them “extremely disturbing.” Stone turned to Southwest, which fired Carter after an investigation, citing the company’s policies regarding bullying, inappropriate use of social media, and harassment.
A jury ultimately sided with Carter and found that the union’s actions and Southwest’s termination of her violated her religious speech rights. In December, Starr ordered that Carter be reinstated and “ordered Southwest to notify its flight attendants of Title VII’s prohibition on religious discrimination.”
In May, Carter accused Southwest of not following that order with the notice it sent to employees, and Starr agreed.
“Specifically, the Court ordered ‘Southwest . . . to inform Southwest flight attendants that, under Title VII, [Southwest] may not discriminate against Southwest flight attendants for their religious practices and beliefs,’” Starr wrote in his scathing sanctions order on Monday (emphasis in original). “Instead, Southwest’s notice said, “[t]he court  ordered us to inform you that Southwest does not discriminate against our Employees for their religious practices and beliefs.’”
Instead of specifically mentioning that the federal law known as Title VII “forbids Southwest from discriminating against flight attendants for their religious beliefs,” Starr continued, Southwest’s notice “communicated that there’s nothing to see here — aside from the Court’s bequeathing Southwest a badge of honor for not discriminating (which the Court did not do).”
As if to add insult to injury, Starr wrote, Southwest issued a memo the same day regarding why it fired Carter.
“Not content with merely inverting the Court’s notice, Southwest also sent a memo to its flight attendants the same day, stating that its employees must abide by the types of policies over which Southwest fired Carter and that it believed its firing of Carter was justified because of those policies,” the judge wrote.
He then went on to cite two cultural touchstones as analogies to Southwest’s recalcitrance.
It’s hard to see how Southwest could have violated the notice requirement more. Take these modified historical and movie anecdotes. 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. Or where Gandalf bellows, “You shall not pass,” the Balrog muses, “I do not pass,” while strolling past Gandalf on the Bridge of Khazad-dûm.
Starr, who himself has associated with the stridently conservative Federalist Society, also determined that “training” from the Alliance Defending Freedom was the best way to “compel compliance” with his order.
“When a litigant ‘does not appear to comprehend’ a legal concept, training in ‘the relevant subject area’ constitutes a ‘particularly apropos’ sanction,” the judge wrote, adding: “[T]he Court directs Southwest to send those individuals to religious-liberty training in the hopes that, on round two, that training will coerce compliance with (instead of the continued undermining of) the Court’s orders in this case.”
Starr said that such training “will impose a minimal burden on Southwest” because an ADF representative will voluntarily fly to Dallas, where Southwest is headquartered, and conduct the 8-hour training there.
“[T]he Court is not requiring Southwest to pay for that training,” Starr noted.
Starr dismissed Southwest’s arguments against sending three members of its legal team — who the judge described as “the root of the problem” — to the training as erroneous, untimely, and, at one point, “asinine.”
In his order, Starr also essentially said that an employee is allowed to say whatever they want if it’s in the name of a sincerely held religious belief — and that the company is powerless to protect employees who may be targeted by such statements.
“Southwest needs to understand, when communicating with its employees, that federal protections for religious freedom override any company civility policy,” Starr wrote. “The rule of law and the republican form of government guarantee no less.”
Starr also awarded Carter attorney fees and costs associated with her contempt motion that prompted the sanctions order.
Southwest has appealed the trial verdict and intends to appeal the sanctions order as well.
“We plan to appeal the recent court order and are in the process of appealing the underlying judgment to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals,” a spokesperson told Law&Crime in an email.
Read the judge’s ruling, below.
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