Trump judge forces Southwest attorneys to get "religious liberty training" from Christian hate group

"Brantley Starr's order would let courts force lawyers to undergo religious indoctrination sessions," analyst warns

By Gabriella Ferrigine

Staff Writer

Published August 8, 2023 3:51PM (EDT)

A Southwest Airlines plane lands at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) in San Francisco, California, United States on June 8, 2023. (Tayfun CoSkun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
A Southwest Airlines plane lands at San Francisco International Airport (SFO) in San Francisco, California, United States on June 8, 2023. (Tayfun CoSkun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

A Texas judge ruled that a trio of senior Southwest Airlines attorneys must partake in "religious liberty training" from a conservative Christian hate group. 

On Monday, U.S. District Judge Brantley Starr mandated the lawyers to take eight hours of training with Alliance Defending Freedom, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled to be an anti-LGBTQ+ hate group.

"Founded by some 30 leaders of the Christian Right, the Alliance Defending Freedom is a legal advocacy and training group that has supported the recriminalization of sexual acts between consenting LGBTQ adults in the U.S. and criminalization abroad; has defended state-sanctioned sterilization of trans people abroad; has contended that LGBTQ people are more likely to engage in pedophilia; and claims that a 'homosexual agenda' will destroy Christianity and society," The New Republic reported. "ADF also works to develop 'religious liberty' legislation and case law that will allow the denial of goods and services to LGBTQ people on the basis of religion. Since the election of President Trump, ADF has become one of the most influential groups informing the administration's attack on LGBTQ rights."

The New Republic also reported that ADF played a pivotal role in the overturning of Roe v. Wade, eventually suing to remove the abortion drug mifepristone from the domestic market. The organization also represented plaintiff Lorie Smith in the SCOTUS case 303 Creative v. Elenis, in which the web designer was suing to refuse services to LGBTQ+ identifying people. 

The Alliance Defending Freedom, according to Starr, who was appointed by Trump in 2019, is one of a number of "esteemed non-profit organizations that are dedicated to preserving free speech and religious freedom."

The sanctioned training comes as part of a larger lawsuit filed by a Southwest flight attendant who argued she was discriminated against based on her religious beliefs after the airline fired her in 2017 for sending anti-abortion messages to the president of her union. Charlene Carter, a "longtime union critic," called her union president despicable for attending the 2017 Women's Rights March in Washington, D.C., where thousands of women gathered to protest the inauguration of former President Donald Trump and rally for various other women's rights issues," according to The Associated Press

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In December, an $800,000 ruling was issued against the airline after a jury in Dallas found that Southwest had violated Carter's right to religious speech. Carter was also reinstated as a flight attendant. 

In his triple-threat Monday order, Starr also sanctioned Southwest to cover Carter's most recent legal fees and dictated a statement for the airline to disseminate to its employees. The latest mandates come after he said Southwest took seeming liberties in one of his post-trial rulings,  seemingly provoking the judge's ire. At the time, Starr ordered the airline to tell flight attendants that under federal law, it "may not discriminate against Southwest flight attendants for their religious practices and beliefs." Southwest instead told employees that it "does not discriminate" on religious beliefs, and cautioned telling flight attendants to heed the policy that it cited in terminating Carter.

The judge in this week's order ruled that Southwest "didn't come close to complying with the Court's order," and cited Merriam-Webster dictionary definitions of "may," "does" and "tolerate." Starr also demanded that Southwest share a new verbatim statement with its employees noting that the airline may not discriminate against flight attendants for religious beliefs "including — but not limited" to abortion.

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The left-leaning D.C. watchdog group Accountable.US called out Starr as a longtime Federalist Society member.

"This is a new low for our federal judiciary — even for an extremist Federalist Society judge," the group tweeted.

Slate legal analyst Mark Joseph Stern called the order "frightening."

"If upheld, Trump Judge Brantley Starr's order would let courts force lawyers to undergo religious indoctrination sessions from an extremist group that may well contradict their own deeply held spiritual beliefs and freedom of speech," he warned. "This cannot possibly be legal."

By Gabriella Ferrigine

Gabriella Ferrigine is a staff writer at Salon. Originally from the Jersey Shore, she moved to New York City in 2016 to attend Columbia University, where she received her B.A. in English and M.A. in American Studies. Formerly a staff writer at NowThis News, she has an M.A. in Magazine Journalism from NYU and was previously a news fellow at Salon.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Abortion Aggregate Alliance Defending Freedom Brantley Starr Donald Trump Politics Southwest Airlines