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Judge orders airline lawyers to take extremist advocacy group's "religious-liberty training"
U.S. District Judge Brantley Starr ordered three Southwest Airlines lawyers to take 8 hours of "instruction" from Alliance Defending Freedom as part of a contempt finding in an employment case.
[Update, Aug. 9: Southwest Airlines is appealing the sanctions opinion and order.]
U.S. District Judge Brantley Starr issued an order Monday that three senior Southwest Airlines lawyers attend eight hours of “religious-liberty training” this month as part of court-ordered sanctions in a employment law case brought by a flight attendant who claimed religion-based discrimination.
What’s more, Starr, a Trump appointee and former longtime lawyer in the Texas Attorney General’s Office, specified that the airline’s lawyers must take this “religious-liberty training” from the far-right Christian, extremist legal advocacy organization, Alliance Defending Freedom.
The sanctions, in large part, were ordered as a result of the fact that — following a jury loss in the employment case — Southwest was supposed to send out a notice that it “may not” discriminate against flight attendants on the basis of their religious practices and beliefs, but instead sent out a notice that it “does not” discriminate and a follow-up memorandum about “civility.” (Southwest is appealing the jury verdict.)
There is certainly much more to be discussed about this order — its propriety in general and in this case in particular — but I just wanted to highlight this to make sure people were aware of it and of the inclusion of ADF in this judge’s order.
ADF’s lawyers — including Erin Hawley, whose husband is Sen. Josh Hawley — are the ones currently litigating to end the availability of one abortion medication drug, mifepristone, nationwide. The group was behind 303 Creative v. Elenis, the case from this past U.S. Supreme Court term about the woman who didn’t want to make wedding websites for same-sex couples — another case that could have substantial fallout.
ADF is not an unbiased, educational institution — nor does it pretend to be. The only relevant “training” its website discusses in the training section is a “Legal Academy” connecting “like-minded attorneys” in an effort to show lawyers how “to effectively advocate for religious liberty, free speech, the sanctity of life, and marriage and family.“
This is their sponsored Google result:
Starr, however, introduced ADF in the contempt order by writing that “there are esteemed non-profit organizations that are dedicated to preserving free speech and religious freedom,” with a footnote citation to the fact that ADF litigated Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission.
He then stated that “some of those entities laudably provide training free of charge for those who have struggled to respect religious liberties in the manner federal law requires” and went on to use ADF’s own news release regarding a case that ADF had brought to highlight one instance of ADF providing “instruction” to justify requiring Southwest Airlines’ lawyers, in a case that has nothing to do with ADF, to receive “instruction” from ADF.
“[T]he Court concludes that training on religious freedom for three lawyers at Southwest the Court finds responsible (Kerrie Forbes, Kevin Minchey, and Chris Maberry) is the least restrictive means of achieving compliance with the Court’s order. The Alliance Defending Freedom (‘ADF’) has conducted such training in the past, and the Court deems that appropriate here,” Starr wrote.
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It’s not precisely clear how religious-liberty training, let alone ADF, became a part of this. ADF is not representing the plaintiff, Charlene Carter, or in any other way involved in the case at all that I can tell.
Carter and her lawyers did not ask for anything like this “religious-liberty training” when she filed her motion for sanctions on Dec. 30, 2022.
It wasn’t until Starr filed an order on May 16 that he announced he was considering adding “religious-liberty training” into his sanctions order in the case.
At that point, however, ADF was still not mentioned in his order.
It should be noted, though, that an ADF case in the Northern District of Texas had made national news the prior month — when one of Starr’s colleagues, U.S. District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk, issued an order that purported to stay the decades-old federal approval of mifepristone.
It was only after Starr’s May 16 order that Carter’s lawyers wrote a word about “religious-liberty training.” And, while they supported it as a sanction in a follow-up briefing, they, too, did not mention ADF. (Southwest’s lawyers opposed the training as part of any sanctions.)
In fact, as far as I can tell, the first time ADF was mentioned as a possibility for this “instruction” was in Monday’s order.
Finally, nothing in the order even makes clear (1) whether ADF would do such “instruction” here, and (2) what it would look like.
However, there is some suggestion that ADF has been consulted about its possible engagement for this sanction. At one point, when discussing the cost of this sanction, Starr wrote, “In particular, the Court is not requiring Southwest to pay for that training. And, as noted below, the Court requires Southwest to arrange for a representative of ADF to fly to Dallas. Flying one person to and from a city imposes a minimal burden on one of the United States’s major airlines.”
The whole thing is disturbing, but it would be quite odd on top of it if Starr is just doing all of this presuming that ADF will send a person to conduct this “instruction” to Dallas this month.
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