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► Judge Orders Southwest Attorneys To Religious Freedom Training

On August 7, 2023, U.S. District Judge Brantley Starr sanctioned three Southwest Airlines Co. attorneys for failing to comply with a court order after the company lost a religious bias lawsuit. The judge sanctioned the attorneys by ordering them to attend “training on religious freedom” by Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian legal organization.

Judge Starr sanctioned the company and the attorneys for altering the language to be used in a court-ordered message informing its flight attendants that under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the company wasn’t allowed to discriminate over their religious practices and beliefs. The judge stated that the alteration of the initial message was an effort to appear to have received “a badge of honor” from the court certifying that it doesn’t discriminate, “inverting the court’s notice.” As a result, the three in-house attorneys were ordered to attend training provided by Alliance Defending Freedom, which describes itself as “the world’s largest legal organization committed to protecting religious freedom, free speech, marriage and family, parental rights, and the sanctity of life.”

The judge has provided a new lengthier notice that the airline must post verbatim, which walks back Southwest’s previous “incorrect” statement and provides exact language for a new one. According to the judge, “Southwest needs to understand, when communicating with its employees, that federal protections for religious freedom override any company civility policy.”

Flight Attendant Charlene Carter was fired because of messages she sent her union president opposing the union’s funds to help members attend the Women’s March in January 2017. She won a jury trial and a damages award of $5 million (which was reduced to $800,000).

Southwest has appealed to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals (which covers employers in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas), but after a 30-day pause, Judge Starr has now refused to extend the time in which the attorneys must attend ADF religious training.

With the new Supreme Court decision strengthening religious accommodation requirements, employers need to be very careful in how they handle situations where an employee can claim religious discrimination under Title VII.

By H. Juanita Beecher . Ms. Beecher is an attorney with Fortney & Scott, LLC, in Washington, D.C. Beecher is a nationally recognized expert on Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs and U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission matters. She is Counsel to Fortney & Scott, LLC, with a focus on OFCCP regulatory affairs. Ms. Beecher’s primary focus is labor and employment law with substantial experience with class investigations by the EEOC and OFCCP.

[11/2023]

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