Southwest Airlines lawyers ordered to complete religious-liberty training run by a conservative Christian legal group — kicking off debate over religious free speech
  • Southwest Airlines has ordered lawyers to complete eight hours of religious-liberty training.
  • District Judge Brantley Starr said Alliance Defending Freedom should run the session.
  • Southwest said it planned to appeal the ruling to train with the conservative legal organization.

A federal judge has ordered lawyers representing Southwest Airlines to attend “religious-liberty” training sessions hosted by a conservative Christian legal group, triggering a debate among legal experts.

Alliance Defending Freedom, or ADF, was the organization that Brantley Starr, a US district judge for the Northern District of Texas, chose to provide the training, the Associated Press reported on Saturday. The conservative Christian legal-advocacy group has become known for its involvement in high-profile Supreme Court cases, its opposition to abortion rights, its defense of business owners that refuse service to same-sex couples on religious grounds, and its seeking to limit transgender rights.

The legal ruling centers around the case of a Southwest flight attendant who sued the airline, claiming that she was fired for expressing her anti-abortion views. Southwest said that she had harassed a senior staff member and broken the company’s social-media policy.

A jury in Dallas awarded the flight attendant $5.1 million in payouts in 2022, which Starr subsequently reduced to $800,000, AP reported.

But this week, Judge Starr issued a 29-page order that stated the court held Southwest Airlines in civil contempt of last year’s ruling.

He said that Southwest had sent a notice to staff following the verdict that stated the airline “does not discriminate” instead of “may not discriminate.” Starr, who former President Donald Trump nominated, also pointed to a second staff notice that he said indicated Southwest believed the attendant’s dismissal was justified.

“It’s hard to see how Southwest could have violated the notice requirement more,” he said in the court order. “Southwest’s speech and actions toward employees demonstrate a chronic failure to understand the role of federal protections for religious freedom.”

Starr has ordered three of the airline’s lawyers to attend ADF’s religious-liberty training, which he described as “particularly well-suited” for the job. He said the training should be conducted at a time decided ADF decides but that it must be completed by August 28.

Legal experts have questioned the judge’s nomination of the controversial Christian nonprofit law firm to conduct the training, and Southwest is planning to appeal the order.

AP reported that David Lopez, a law professor at Rutgers University and formerly the longest-serving general counsel of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, said training with ADF could violate the religious rights of the lawyers. He added that the ADF is “a voice many people view as being very controversial and very narrow.”

Douglas Laycock, who retired from his job as a law professor at the University of Virginia in May as one of the nation’s leading experts on religious-liberty law, agreed. He told AP that Southwest could argue “that the ADF has extreme views on these issues and will give distorted training.”

Southwest Airlines and the ADF did not immediately reply to requests for comment by Insider made outside normal working hours.

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