Southwest Airlines' court-ordered 'religious-liberty' training: freedom or indoctrination?

Did a federal judge go too far when he ordered airline employees to attend 'religious liberty' training from a conservative Christian group?

Southwest Airlines plane at airport
Southwest Airlines employees are now required to get training from a conservative Christian group that's opposed to same-sex marriage and abortion access
(Image credit: Patrick T. Fallon / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

When federal judge Brantley Starr ordered Southwest Airlines to reinstate former flight attendant Charlene Carter, he wryly noted in his ruling that "bags fly free with Southwest. But free speech didn't fly at all with Southwest in this case." Carter, to whom Starr also awarded $800,000 in damages, had been fired by the company for sending graphic anti-abortion messages to her local union president, calling the group's participation in the 2017 Women's March on Washington "despicable" due to Planned Parenthood serving as a co-sponsor of the event. As part of his ruling, Starr also ordered Southwest to notify its flight attendants that the company "may not discriminate" against employees for their religious beliefs and statements. Southwest, in subsequent memos to its staff, acknowledged that the court had "ordered us to inform you that Southwest does not discriminate" based on religious beliefs, while reiterating the company policies on civility it had used to justify Carter's firing.

Incensed at the subtle change in wording between his order and Southwest's memo, as well as with the company's reiteration of its civility standards, Starr excoriated the airline in a blistering 29-page memo filed last month. In it, the judge concluded that Southwest's "chronic failure to understand the role of federal protections for religious freedom" necessitated, among other things, that three of its attorneys attend a "training on religious freedom" facilitated by the Alliance Defending Freedom, self-described as "one of the leading Christian law firms" whose 1994 founding was predicated on the "goal of keeping the doors open for the Gospel." This month, Starr refused a petition to stay the order, writing that the airline's opposition is "more of a gripe than a legal objection" and that "religious liberty training won't harm Southwest."

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Rafi Schwartz, The Week US

Rafi Schwartz has worked as a politics writer at The Week since 2022, where he covers elections, Congress and the White House. He was previously a contributing writer with Mic focusing largely on politics, a senior writer with Splinter News, a staff writer for Fusion's news lab, and the managing editor of Heeb Magazine, a Jewish life and culture publication. Rafi's work has appeared in Rolling Stone, GOOD and The Forward, among others.