Southwest Airlines disobeyed order in flight attendant’s free speech case, judge rules

Two Southwest Airlines planes are shown, one in the air and the other on the ground facing the opposite direction.
A judge says Southwest Airlines twisted his words and disregarded his order in the case of a flight attendant who claimed that she was fired for expressing her opposition to abortion.
(Kiichiro Sato / Associated Press)

A judge has sanctioned Southwest Airlines, writing that the airline twisted his words and disregarded his order in the case of a flight attendant who claimed that she was fired for expressing her opposition to abortion.

U.S. District Judge Brantley Starr found Southwest in contempt for the way it explained the case to flight attendants last year after losing a jury verdict. In a blistering 29-page order, the judge said the airline acted as if its own policy limiting what employees can say is more important than a federal law protecting religious speech.

On Monday, the judge ordered Southwest to pay the flight attendant’s most recent legal costs, dictated a statement for Southwest to relay to employees, and ordered three Southwest lawyers to complete “religious liberty training” from a conservative Christian legal advocacy group.


Southwest filed an appeal of last year’s judgment in May. A spokesperson said Tuesday that the Dallas-based airline also plans to appeal the judge’s new sanctions.

For Southwest, the sanctions add insult to injury. They stem from a roughly $800,000 judgment against the airline and the flight attendant’s union. Although that was less than the jury’s $5.1-million award, Charlene Carter also got her job back.

Carter, a longtime union critic, said she was fired after she called the union president “despicable” for attending the 2017 Women’s March in Washington. At the event, demonstrators protested the inauguration of President Trump and called for protecting abortion rights, among many issues.

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April 21, 2023

The airline and Local 556 of the Transport Workers Union said Carter had made offensive posts on Facebook and harassed the union’s president in private messages.

The jury in a Dallas court found that Southwest violated Carter’s right to religious speech.

After the trial last year, the judge — 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 airline told employees that it “does not discriminate,” and it doubled down by telling flight attendants to follow the airline policy that it cited in firing Carter.

In an order this week that alternated between sarcasm and outrage, Starr ruled that Southwest “didn’t come close to complying with the Court’s order.” He schooled the airline on the definitions of “may,” “does” and “tolerate” — complete with footnotes citing the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

The judge ordered Southwest to email a new, verbatim statement declaring that the airline may not discriminate against flight attendants for religious beliefs “including — but not limited” to — abortion.

Starr ordered three company lawyers to undergo eight hours of religious-liberty training this month by the Alliance Defending Freedom, calling the group “particularly well-suited” for the work. The Southern Poverty Law Center has called ADF an anti-LGBTQ hate group. ADF disputes the characterization.

Starr held senior positions in the Texas attorney general’s office for several years before Trump nominated him for the federal bench. The Senate confirmed his nomination 51-39, voting along party lines in the then-GOP-controlled body. He is a member of the conservative legal group the Federalist Society.