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Judge orders Southwest Airlines to receive “training” from anti-abortion extremist group
This week, a federal judge appointed by former president Donald Trump, Brantley Starr, ordered three attorneys who work for Southwest Airlines to undergo "religious liberty training" conducted by the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a far-right extremist group that opposes abortion rights. Starr ordered that the "training shall be conducted by ADF at a time set by ADF, it shall last a minimum of 8 hours of instructional time, and it must be completed by August 28, 2023." The company "must transport ADF’s representative to Dallas and be responsible for any food, accommodation, or other travel expenses for ADF’s representative."
How did this happen? Starr's ruling, first reported by Chris Geidner, is related to a case filed by Charlene Carter, a Southwest flight attendant, against the company. According to Southwest, Carter was terminated on March 14, 2017 for "a two-year grossly offensive and terrible campaign to personally torment Audrey Stone, the then-President of Transportation Workers Union, Local 556." The company says that "Carter sent dozens upon dozens of messages to Stone’s Facebook Messenger account." The messages "ranged from the insults and name-calling to overtly grotesque imagery designed to inflict severe emotional distress." Some of the messages included "images and videos of aborted fetuses along with an image of women wearing headdresses that looked like anatomically correct vaginas." While Stone initially ignored Carter's communications, it eventually became too much, and she reported the harassment to her supervisor.
Several of Carter's messages are too graphic to publish, but here is a sample:
There are more than 100 pages of messages like this that were submitted as evidence in the lawsuit.
Carter does not deny sending these messages but claims, among other things, that her termination constituted illegal discrimination "for her religious beliefs and practices." Carter said she had a right to share her "religious views" with Stone "while off-duty and without any impact on the workplace." Carter says she is a "Christian who believes that abortion is the taking of a human life contrary to the teachings of the Bible and the will of God" and "sincere religious beliefs require her to share with others that abortion is the taking of a human life."
Southwest says Carter's termination "had nothing to do with her religious beliefs." Further, the company argued, "the right to share any material related to abortion without restriction, no matter how graphic or offensive – is not mandated by her stated religious belief." Southwest noted that the "managers who Carter deposed in this case expressly testified that they share her pro-life convictions and have no animus against Christians." Rather, Carter's managers terminated her employment because Carter chose to engage in "a systemic campaign of torment and harassment upon Stone."
Southwest urged Starr to dismiss Carter's case as a matter of law. Starr declined to do so, and the case went to trial in 2022. A Texas jury ruled in favor of Carter and awarded her over $5 million in compensatory and punitive damages. Starr later reduced the award to about $800,000 to comply with federal rules limiting punitive damages.
The training ordered by Starr stems not from monetary damages but from further remedial measures Starr included in a December 5, 2022 order.
The Court… ORDERS Southwest to post the jury’s verdict and the accompanying Final Judgment on company bulletin boards for a 60-day period and issue them electronically to all Southwest flight attendants. The Court ORDERS Southwest… to inform Southwest flight attendants that, under Title VII, they may not discriminate against Southwest flight attendants for their religious practices and beliefs, including—but not limited to—those expressed on social media and those concerning abortion.
Southwest posted the jury verdict and the Final Judgment on its company bulletin boards and sent it electronically to staff. It also sent an email "to every active Southwest Flight Attendant… advising those Flight Attendants of Southwest’s commitment to refrain from discrimination based on the religious beliefs of employees, including beliefs related to opposition to abortion, whether expressed on social media or otherwise."
Carter sought additional sanctions against Southwest because in the email sent to flight attendants, Southwest wrote that "Southwest does not discriminate against our Employees for their religious practices and beliefs." (Emphasis added.) Carter argues that Southwest, by using the word "does not," is trying to pretend it won the lawsuit. (In the same email, Southwest acknowledges it lost the lawsuit.) Rather, Carter maintained, Southwest was required to tell Southwest Flight Attendants that Southwest may not discriminate against employees based on their religious practices and beliefs. Carter was also upset that Southwest sent employees a memo encouraging everyone to treat each other with civility and respect.
This appears to be a semantic argument. Starr's order did not require Southwest to use specific language in the email to flight attendants. The company was clearly making a good-faith attempt to comply with the order. But Starr concluded that Southwest's conduct was egregious. He compares Southwest's use of "does not" to Adam lying to God.
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],”3 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.
In the universe we live in—the one where words mean something— Southwest’s notice didn’t come close to complying with the Court’s order. So the Court GRANTS Carter’s motion and holds Southwest in civil contempt.
Starr further concludes that "Southwest’s speech and actions toward employees demonstrate a chronic failure to understand the role of federal protections for religious freedom." That is why Starr orders "training" by ADF for three Southwest attorneys. Starr describes ADF "as an "esteemed non-profit organization... dedicated to preserving free speech and religious freedom."
The truth about ADF
Created in 1994, ADF is a right-wing Christian group with a history of anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ stances. It is notorious for writing the Mississippi abortion ban that was eventually used to overturn Roe v. Wade. Earlier this year, the group published an article on its website touting that “many years of planning and tireless work paid off in the historic Dobbs decision overturning Roe.” The article, which is titled “What You May Not Know: How ADF Helped Overturn Roe v. Wade,” details how the group has worked to dismantle Roe since 2017.
“No matter what may come, Alliance Defending Freedom rejoices alongside others in the pro-life movement over the victory in Dobbs,” the group writes. “It is a testimony to God’s faithfulness that the overturning of Roe v. Wade, something once thought nearly impossible, occurred during our lifetimes.”
Since then, ADF has been dedicated to defending state abortion bans in court. The group is currently suing the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for expanding access to abortion pills. One of the key lawyers on the case is ADF Senior Counsel Erin Hawley, who is married to Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO). “The couple has been open in their parallel efforts to ban abortion,” Vanity Fair reported this year.
ADF has also been identified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) for propagating “known falsehoods about LGBT people over the years.” (ADF says the SPLC is "an unreliable, scandal-ridden, and far-left activist organization that attacks anyone who disagrees with its narrow political agenda.") Meanwhile, the Human Rights Campaign has dubbed ADF the “nation’s largest anti-LGBT legal advocacy group.”
Between 2005 and 2006, the group “wrote the original language for discriminatory same-sex marriage bans” in Idaho, Colorado, and South Carolina. The group also has a record of “promot[ing] and defend[ing] anti-sodomy laws that criminalize gay sex.” On its website currently, the group lists “Rebuilding Marriage” between “one man and one woman” as one of its “key campaigns.”
Over the years, ADF has also helped craft anti-trans legislation in dozens of states. In Europe, the group has fought to protect, albeit unsuccessfully, “European laws requiring the sterilization of transgender citizens.”
The group is also known for “defending anti-gay business owners who refuse to comply with nondiscrimination laws.” Most recently, the group represented Lorie Smith, the Christian web designer who won her Supreme Court case over whether she could refuse to provide services to same-sex couples.
Starr's politics are in line with ADF. Prior to his tenure as a federal judge, Starr served as a legal advisor to Texas' far-right Attorney General Ken Paxton (R). Starr's views on religious freedom are out of the mainstream. For example, even after the Supreme Court recognized the right to same-sex marriage, Starr “defended the right of county clerks to refuse to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples” on religious grounds. Starr also spoke “in support of legislation intended to protect state-funded adoption agencies that discriminate against LGBTQ couples,” saying it was necessary to protect “religious rights of conscience.”
It remains unclear if Starr consulted with ADF before requiring Southwest to receive training from the group. Starr also does not specify what the ADF training would include and how it would benefit Carter, who never asked that Southwest receive any training.