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Society

Southwest Airlines is Back in Court over Firing of Flight Attendant with Anti-Abortion Views

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Southwest Airlines is set to return to federal court Monday in hopes of reversing an $800,000 award to a flight attendant who said she was fired for her anti-abortion views and a judge’s related order that the airlines’ lawyers take religious liberty training from a conservative Christian legal group.

Southwest argues flight attendant Charlene Carter was fired because she violated company rules requiring civility in the workplace by sending “hostile and graphic” anti-abortion messages to a fellow employee, who also was president of the local union.

Carter called the union leader “despicable” for attending the 2017 Women’s March in Washington, D.C., where participants protested the inauguration of then-President Donald Trump and called for protecting abortion rights.

Carter’s attorneys argue in briefs that she made clear to management she sent the material “because she was a pro-life Christian, and as a Christian she believes she must get the word out to anyone who touches the issue of abortion.”

They argued firing her violated federal law shielding employees from religious-based discrimination and that Southwest management and the union, which complained about Carr’s messages, should be held liable for her firing.

After the trial, U.S. District Judge Brantley Starr, a Trump nominee who joined the bench in 2019, 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 that it cited in firing Carter.

Starr found Southwest in contempt in August for the way it explained the case to flight attendants. He ordered Southwest to pay Carter’s most recent legal costs and he dictated a statement for Southwest to relay to employees.

He also ordered three Southwest 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.

Lawyers for Carter said in briefs that the type of training ordered “is a commonplace civil contempt sanction” and denied that it impinges on the airline’s free speech rights.

The initial monetary award against Southwest and the union was $5.1 million, the bulk to be paid by Southwest. The judge, citing federal limits on punitive damages, later reduced it to about $800,000, including $450,000 in damages and back pay from Southwest, $300,000 in damages from the union and about $60,000 in interest.

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By KEVIN MCGILL Associated Press

The story has been updated to correct the amount of the award to $800,000, from $8 million.

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