Event Banner

Southwest Airlines ordered to undergo training on religious freedom after court finds it continued to discriminate


“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.”


A federal judge has sanctioned lawyers for Southwest Airlines, ordering them to attend religious freedom training conducted by Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) due to its failure to follow the court’s order in a case in which Southwest fired a flight attendant for expressing her Christian beliefs.

Quick Facts

Over a year ago, a federal jury delivered a verdict that said Southwest Airlines and the Transportation Workers Union of America (TWU) Local 556 had worked together to illegally fire flight attendant Charlene Carter because she criticized their support for abortion, the Women’s March, and other union actions. In addition to ordering the airline to pay Carter $5.1 million in compensatory and punitive damages, U.S. District Court Judge Brantley Starr ordered Southwest to reinstate Carter to her job. He also enjoined both organizations from discriminating against the religious beliefs of other flight attendants in the future and to notify all flight attendants of the prohibition on religious discrimination mandated by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.

However, only the union followed the order. According to a sanction handed down by Starr, Southwest appeared to double down on its stance. Instead of explaining that it is not allowed to discriminate against a religious employee based on his or her beliefs, officials instead claimed that the airline “does not discriminate” on the basis of religion. Moreover, it disparaged Carter’s conduct and told flight attendants they could not act as Carter did.

Starr stated,

“Southwest’s notice failed to mention Title VII, that the federal law known as Title VII contains a prohibition, and that that prohibition forbids Southwest from discriminating against flight attendants for their religious beliefs. Instead, Southwest’s notice communicated that there’s nothing to see here—aside from the Court’s bequeathing Southwest a badge of honor for not discriminating (which the Court did not do).”

In his ruling, the judge determined that rather than communicate the message he ordered the airline to send, Southwest told flight attendants, “[t]he court [] ordered us to inform you that Southwest does not discriminate against our Employees for their religious practices and beliefs.”

On the same day Southwest sent a memo to flight attendants saying that Carter “crossed the boundaries of acceptable behavior,” that she was “inappropriate, harassing, and offensive,” and that she “did not adhere to Southwest policies and guidelines.” Southwest said that it was appealing the decision but did not mention that it had not appealed the injunction; the memo told flight attendants they “must all adhere to” its “established policies.”

Starr chastised Southwest by writing,

“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],’ 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.”

Starr then ordered that Southwest provide a statement to the flight attendants exactly as he wrote it. In part it states,

“Under Title VII, Southwest 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.”

He also ordered three of Southwest’s attorneys, who were responsible for the messages, to attend religious freedom training held by ADF, as well as pay expenses for the ADF trainer. Southwest is appealing the sanction.

In recent years, too many corporations have adopted the stance that there is only one correct belief system on certain issues and controversies. This has been especially true with abortion. Southwest officials are pro-abortion and they think that everyone who works for them must hold the same view — if anyone believes differently, they must either keep it to themselves or be punished. Carlene Carter didn’t obey and so they made an example of her.

Sadly, they believe that their corporate policy outweighs the law of the land. Even after a jury told them that their actions were unconstitutional and a judge told them to make it right, they went passive-aggressive and ignored the jury’s findings and the judge’s order.

Even now, in the face of judicial sanctions, Southwest officials believe this training isn’t necessary. Southwest has proven numerous times that it has no respect for dissenting views and that it views Carter as a despicable person who it had every right to fire for having the courage to speak her mind. Its messages to flight attendants were an attempt to cloud the jury’s ruling that Southwest violated Carter’s rights and Starr’s order that it refrain from violating other flight attendants’ liberties. This sanction is an apt remedy. Whether these lawyers will learn from the training or not is up to them, but the message is clear: Southwest Airlines does not respect religious freedom and needs to be taught the basics of the Constitution.

In response, mainstream publications are smearing ADF as an extremist group that seeks to roll back protections for LGBT people. Some legal experts are even claiming ADF is not a religious freedom group but a radical Christian religious organization. Much of this is founded in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s designation of ADF as a hate group even though the SPLC, a left-wing fundraising juggernaut, is a thoroughly discredited organization known for demonizing those on the right; those on its “hate list” have been on the receiving end of violence.

Still, many buy into the SPLC’s narratives. Former University of Virginia law professor Douglas Layock said that Southwest could argue “that ADF has extreme views on these issues and will give distorted training, and there is something to that.” He also said Southwest could say ADF is a religious organization and forcing the lawyers to take training would violate their religious liberty.

Layock stated, “ADF presents itself as a religious-liberty organization, but it is really a Christian organization. It isn’t much interested in anyone else’s religious liberty.”

ADF, however, is interested in the religious liberty of people who are not Christians. That can be seen in several cases, such as when it represented Dr. Dovid Schwartz, a psychotherapist and Orthodox Jew after New York City told him he could not help patients with their unwanted same-sex attraction.

“ADF seeks to protect everyone’s First Amendment freedoms,” the “About Us” section of ADF’s website says, adding,

“While many of our clients are Christians, we’ve also defended the rights of Jews, Muslims, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and people of no faith. Religious freedom is for everyone. In our campus free speech work, we’ve represented students of varied religious faiths and political beliefs. And outside the United States, ADF International has worked to stop persecution against Christians, Yazidis, Muslims, and other religious minorities.”

Those who pretend that ADF is some form of extremist organization only prove the need for training. ADF only represents clients whose constitutional rights have been denied them by businesses, governments, and others. ADF is being slandered for its representation of Lorie Smith in 303 Creative v. Elenis, a free speech case that did not “roll back protections for LGBT Americans” but instead reaffirmed the right of all Americans to not be forced to express things that violate their beliefs. Those like the Southern Poverty Law Center are actually the ones who are showing themselves to be a slanderous hate group.

As members of a pluralistic, free society, Americans do not all have to think the same or hold the same beliefs. We do not all have to parrot the views handed down to us from our employer, the government, or fellow citizens. Instead, we each have the right to share our views, even if they are in dissent to a corporate policy. That is the law of the land. That’s why it’s so important that people like Charlene Carter are unafraid and willing to speak up and challenge the powerful, that there are law firms willing to defend their rights, and that there are still judges who uphold the Constitution.

Ready to dive deeper into the intersection of faith and policy? Head over to our Theology of Politics series page where we’ve published several long-form pieces that will help Christians navigate where their faith should direct them on political issues.