“Bags fly free on Southwest. But free speech didn’t fly at all with Southwest in this case,” began District Court Judge Brantley Starr’s opinion. Judge Starr granted judgment for Charlene Carter, a Southwest flight attendant, after a federal jury found that Southwest Airlines and Transport Workers Union Local 556 illegally fired her for expressing her religious beliefs and for opposing the union. As Judge Starr put it: “The jury found the Defendants were grossly intolerant of their flight attendants’ speech in violation of federal law.”
Yet Southwest doubled down on its illegal conduct. It not only ignored federal law but also willfully violated a court order. And so Judge Starr held Southwest in civil contempt and ordered several Southwest attorneys to attend religious liberty training. That order and the merits of the case are now pending at the Fifth Circuit.
The case stems from union speech on religious and political issues that Carter was forced to subsidize. In 2017, TWU Local 556’s President and union members—all Southwest flight attendants—attended the “Women’s March” in Washington, D.C. The union supported and participated in the march, sponsored by Planned Parenthood. The union pulled flight attendants from work telling Southwest it was for “union business,” and the union paid for their expenses. Southwest further allowed union members to travel to the march for free on “union business.” During the march, union flight attendants carried a banner and signs with Southwest’s logo. TWU member flight attendants also carried signs supporting abortion. Pictures from the march were proudly displayed on the union’s website and Facebook page. Despite the march’s political and religious nature, the union coded its expenses for the march as a representation expense—which nonunion members must pay for to keep their jobs.
Carter is a pro-life Christian. Even though she is not a union member, she is still forced to pay union fees to keep her job. Carter objected that the union unlawfully used her money and her voice—as her forced representative—to support abortion. Carter thus sent several private Facebook messages to the union president’s account. Carter included several videos that showed an aborted baby. She vowed to recall the union president and vehemently objected to how the union uses nonmembers’ forced fees—which cannot be used for political or ideological purposes under federal law.
The union retaliated against Carter. The union president complained to Southwest that Carter’s religious protests violated company policies. And Southwest promptly fired her, even though it recognized that Carter’s objections were based on her sincere religious beliefs. Carter sued under Title VII and the Railway Labor Act (RLA). Title VII protects employees’ religious beliefs and practices in the workplace, and the RLA protects employees’ rights to oppose unions and voice objections to union policies.
A federal jury found that Southwest and the union violated Carter’s Title VII and RLA-protected rights. The jury awarded Carter $5.1 million in combined compensatory and punitive damages. As a further remedy, Judge Starr ordered Southwest to tell its flight attendants that, under Title VII, Southwest may not discriminate against Southwest flight attendants based on religion.
But Southwest instead notified its flight attendants that it “does not” discriminate based on religion. As the court later put it, “Southwest inverted the Court’s order.” Southwest contemporaneously issued a memo lambasting Carter. Southwest called Carter’s conduct “inappropriate, harassing, and offensive.” It wrote that Carter “crossed the boundaries of acceptable behavior” and violated “Southwest policies and guidelines.” Southwest further warned its flight attendants that they must adhere to its policies and guidelines—which were the very ones it used to fire Carter and violate federal law.
Based on this conduct, Judge Starr held Southwest in contempt. As he put it, Southwest’s “notice didn’t come close to complying with the Court’s order.” According to Judge Starr, Southwest repeatedly showed its failure to comprehend employees’ Title VII-protected religious liberties. Throughout the case, Southwest pointed to its policies as a defense for its unlawful discrimination. Even after the jury found and the court ruled that Southwest violated federal law— “whether or not Southwest followed its policies”—Southwest continued to rely on its policies as a defense. But federal law is clear: “it is no response that the [discharge] was due to an otherwise-neutral policy. Title VII requires otherwise-neutral policies to give way to the need for an accommodation.”
Judge Starr thus ordered several Southwest attorneys to attend religious-liberty training. He explained that this remedial training is not a punishment. Rather, it aims to fix a “chronic failure to understand the role of federal protections for religious freedom.” Because Southwest continues to believe that its policies on civility trump federal laws like Title VII, Judge Starr determined remedial training is needed to prevent future harm. Southwest, however, has not given up. Southwest appealed the verdict and the sanction to the Fifth Circuit. For now, the remedial training is on hold while the Fifth Circuit decides the case.
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