**Debate Over “Religious-Liberty Training” Order for Lawyers in Southwest Airlines Case**
A federal judge’s decision to order lawyers for Southwest Airlines to undergo “religious-liberty training” by a conservative Christian legal group has sparked a debate among legal scholars. Critics argue that if the judge deems such training necessary, he should have chosen a less polarizing group to conduct it.
**Judge Orders Religious-Liberty Training for Southwest Airlines Lawyers**
U.S. District Judge Brantley Starr made this decision after finding Southwest in contempt of court for defying a previous order he issued in a case involving a flight attendant who claimed she was fired for expressing her opposition to abortion. Judge Starr stated that Southwest lacked an understanding of federal protections for religious freedom and ordered three of the airline’s lawyers to undergo religious-liberty training. He specifically selected the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) to conduct the training, calling them “particularly well-suited” for the task.
**Alliance Defending Freedom: A Controversial Conservative Legal Group**
ADF is known for its opposition to abortion, its defense of individuals who refuse to provide services for same-sex marriages, and its efforts to limit transgender rights. The group frequently cites First Amendment rights in its litigation. ADF declined to disclose the specifics of its training or to comment on the matter directly. However, its chief legal counsel, Jim Campbell, emphasized that the training would focus on religious liberty law rather than religious doctrine.
**Southwest Airlines’ Response and Potential Challenges**
Southwest Airlines has appealed Judge Starr’s sanctions, which include sending a statement written by the judge to its flight attendants clarifying that the airline cannot discriminate based on employees’ religious beliefs. The airline, already appealing the jury verdict in the flight attendant’s favor, argues against the necessity of training by a conservative Christian group, asserting that it violates the religious rights of its lawyers who may follow different faiths or none at all.
**Legal Experts Weigh In**
David Lopez, former general counsel of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, believes that while training is often required for employers found guilty of discrimination, the choice of the training provider is typically agreed upon by all parties involved. He finds the judge’s decision unusual and points out that ADF is perceived as a controversial and narrow-focused organization.
Douglas Laycock, an authority on religious-liberty law, clarifies that judges can order additional measures, such as training, to ensure compliance with an order. However, Southwest Airlines still has the right to appeal. Laycock suggests that the airline could argue that ADF holds extreme views and is likely to provide distorted training. Alternatively, Southwest could assert that ADF is primarily a religious organization, making it inappropriate to require its lawyers to undergo training from the group, as it would infringe upon their rights.
Steven Collis, director of a law and religion clinic at the University of Texas at Austin, acknowledges that it falls within a judge’s authority to order this type of training. However, he questions the appropriateness of choosing a partisan group like ADF, suggesting that a more neutral party or an academic could have been selected instead.
**Background on Judge Brantley Starr**
Nominated by former President Donald Trump, Judge Starr has been at the center of controversy. As the nephew of Kenneth Starr, the federal judge who led the investigations into former President Bill Clinton that resulted in Clinton’s impeachment, Brantley Starr has strong conservative ties. He previously held senior positions in the Texas Attorney General’s office and has been a member of the conservative legal group, the Federalist Society.
**The Southwest Airlines Case**
The case that led to Judge Starr’s order involves the termination of Charlene Carter, a flight attendant of over 20 years. Carter was fired after making inflammatory social media posts and sending private messages criticizing the president of the flight attendant’s union for attending an anti-Trump, pro-abortion-rights march in Washington. She attached videos depicting aborted fetuses to her messages. After losing the case in arbitration, Carter sued, and a Dallas jury awarded her $5.1 million from Southwest Airlines and the union. Judge Starr later reduced the judgment to approximately $800,000 to comply with federal limits on punitive damages. Both Southwest Airlines and the union are challenging the decision before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
The court’s order for Southwest Airlines’ lawyers to undergo religious-liberty training by the Alliance Defending Freedom has generated a heated debate among legal scholars. Critics argue that the choice of a conservative Christian group for the training could infringe on the religious rights of the lawyers involved. Southwest Airlines has appealed the sanctions, emphasizing the need for a less polarizing training provider. As the case progresses, it remains to be seen how these arguments will impact the final outcome.