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."

But is mandatory training with a conservative group opposed to same-sex marriage and abortion access an appropriate judicial remedy?

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What the commentators said

The Alliance Defending Freedom is "no neutral, academic entity," The Washington Post's Ruth Marcus said. Instead, the group is a " full-throated, highly effective combatant in the culture wars" whose stances on reproductive health care and LGBTQ rights are "to many people particularly offensive." Countering that Marcus had "perhaps overstated matters," Reason's Walter Olson nevertheless agreed in substance that Starr's order would have been "just as improper" if it had involved the "left-leaning Southern Poverty Law Center," a group that, for its part, lists the Alliance Defending Freedom as a designated "hate group."

The ADF itself has defended its training, emphasizing in a statement to The Associated Press that it focuses on "training in religious liberty law — not religious doctrine."

Starr "could have avoided criticism" had he gone to a training source that's "a little more neutral," said University of Texas Austin Law and Religion Clinic Director Steven Collis, even as he admitted to the AP that the judge was within his rights to turn to the ADF. "Use an academic instead," Collis suggested.

This case shows that religious discrimination should be taken as "seriously as discrimination based on race (or) sex," U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission head Andrea Lucas stressed to Reuters. Like Starr, Lucas was appointed by former President Donald Trump. Former EEOC Chief Council and current Rutgers University Law Professor David Lopez disagreed, telling the wire service that the case is a sign that "the court is moving into some really dangerous territory here." Speaking with the AP, Lopez added, "What happened here, I've never seen that."

What next?

Southwest has confirmed to that it plans to appeal the order, as well as Carter's jury victory at large. In the meantime, judicial watchdog and advocacy group Fix the Court has filed a complaint against Judge Starr directly, arguing in a press release that his ruling "contradicts Canon 3 of the Code of Conduct" and "demands scrutiny."

Noting that the "5th Circuit [Court of Appeals] is the most conservative in the country," The Post's Marcus predicted that Southwest's ongoing effort to stop Starr's "egregious" order "might not be the easiest lift." If Southwest's appeals effort fails, the ensuing case will be "worth watching," Reason's Olson predicted, suggesting a "significant First Amendment precedent down the road."

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Rafi Schwartz

Rafi Schwartz is a Politics Writer with The Week, where he focuses on elections, Congress, and the White House. He was previously a contributing writer with Mic, a senior writer with Splinter News, and the managing editor of Heeb Magazine. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, GOOD, The Forward, and elsewhere.

Rafi currently lives in the Twin Cities, where he does not bike, run, or take part in any team sports. He does, however, have a variety of interests, hobbies, and passions.