Airline lawyers spared religious liberty training in case about flight attendant's abortion views

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — An appeals court on Friday blocked a federal judge’s order that three attorneys for Southwest Airlines get religious liberty training from a conservative advocacy group, saying the judge likely exceeded his authority.

Three judges with the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans put the training order on hold while appeals are pursued.

The order is an outgrowth of a case in which a Southwest flight attendant, Charlene Carter, sued the airline and her union after she was fired for sending graphic anti-abortion material and disparaging messages to a union leader and fellow employee. Carter won an $800,000 court award, also the subject of an appeal, after her attorneys argued that she was terminated for her religious beliefs.

The religious-training requirement was part of a contempt order against the airline issued by U.S. District Judge Brantley Starr. After Carter won a jury verdict, 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.”

Instead, the Dallas-based airline told employees that it “does not discriminate,” and told flight attendants to follow the airline policy it cited in firing Carter.

In August, Starr found Southwest in contempt for the way it explained the case to flight attendants. He ordered Southwest to pay Carter’s most recent legal costs and dictated a statement for Southwest to relay to employees. He ordered the three lawyers to complete at least eight hours of religious liberty training from the Alliance Defending Freedom, which offers training on compliance with federal law prohibiting religious discrimination in the workplace.

The conservative group has played a high-profile role in multiple legal fights. They include defending a baker and a website designer who didn’t want to work on same-sex marriage projects, efforts to limit transgender rights and a challenge to longstanding federal approval of a medication used in the most common way to end a pregnancy.

Arguments in the appeal were heard Monday. The arguments concentrated on Carter's firing and did not deal with the contempt order. However, in briefs the airline said the contempt order violated its free speech rights and should be overturned.

“At bottom, it appears that the district court sought, at least in part, to punish Southwest for what the district court viewed as conduct flouting its holding,” the appellate court ruling said. “But its punitive sanctions likely exceed the scope of the court’s civil-contempt authority.”

Still pending is the decision on the effort by Southwest and the flight attendants' union to reverse the $800,000 judgment in Carter's favor. The panel has given no indication when it will rule.

Starr was nominated to the federal district court bench by former President Donald Trump. The 5th Circuit judges on the panel included Trump nominees Cory Wilson and Kurt Engelhardt along with Edith Brown Clement, nominated by former President George W. Bush.