Could Mandatory Religious Liberty Training Be Coming to an HR Department Near You?

Charlene Carter criticized the Southwest Union funds to help members attend a women’s march sponsored by Planned Parenthood. Carter condemned the union president on social media and included images of aborted fetuses. Carter claims she is a Christian who opposes abortion.

Southwest Airlines alleges that Carter violated its social media policies and terminated her. Carter filed a lawsuit claiming she was the subject of religious discrimination. Southwest argued that Carter was fired for harassing coworkers about the Women’s March on social media in violation of a company “civility policy.”

Following a jury trial, Carter was awarded $800,000 in damages. U.S. District Jude Brantley Starr also ordered Southwest to notify employee of their rights against religious discrimination.

Instead, Judge Starr alleges that Southwest did its best to “invert” the order. Southwest posted a notice stating that a court had “ordered us to inform you that Southwest does not discriminate against our employees for their religious practices and beliefs.” The airline also allegedly posted a memo defending its decision to fire Carter and warned workers not to violate the company policy that led to Carter’s termination. Three of Southwest’s top attorneys allegedly wrote the memo.

Judge Starr ordered Southwest to post a notice that stated Southwest had violated Title IV of the Civil Rights Act. Judge Starr also ordered the three attorneys who wrote the memo to attend an eight hour mandatory religious liberty training session presented by a member of the Alliance Defending Freedom group. The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) group had previously represented a cake baker and website designer who did not want to provide services for same-sex weddings and challenged the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s approval of abortion medication mifepristone.

However, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has temporarily halted the order for the three lawyers to attend religious liberty training. Southwest has appealed Judge Starr’s order arguing that it “exceeds the civil-contempt power, violates the First Amendment, rests on a jury verdict unlikely to survive appeal, and, left unstayed, will irreparably harm Southwest and its attorneys.”

Courts Should Not Direct Training to Enrich Any Specific Group

The controversial aspect of Judge Starr’s orders is that Southwest’s attorneys are compelled to attend a religious liberty training course with ADF. While there is precedent for a court to require attorneys to attend continuing education or ethics training, it is highly unusual for them to order company officials to undergo training conducted by specific groups. Judges in Pennsylvania had been removed from the bench for sentencing children to jail in exchange for taking bribes from said jails. While Judge Starr may not be taking bribes from ADF, federal judges are required to maintain the appearance of neutrality and impartiality.

This is especially true since the order requires Southwest to pay ADF for any training provided, including travel costs. There is no reason why Southwest employees couldn’t be ordered to take religious liberty training generally instead of with a specific group. Even if Judge Starr’s goal is to punish Southwest for “inverting” his order, he has no mandate to financially benefit a specific third-party who has no involvement in the case.

Additionally, it would be inappropriate for a racial sensitivity course to imply that one race is superior to another. ADF is a litigious conservative Christian activist group. Judge Starr may be potentially violating the Southwest attorneys’ religious liberty rights if the course pushes them to convert to Christianity or explicitly or implicitly “teach” that Christianity is a superior religion. Sensitivity training should be neutral towards all groups. A court order to attend training by a specific organization would only heighten potential red flags about the impartiality of such an order.

Do I Need an Attorney for Assistance with Religious Discrimination at Work?

If you are facing religious discrimination at work based on your religious beliefs, several legal options and protections may be available to you. It is best to consult with an employment lawyer who can advise you of these protections.

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