FFRF brief sides with Southwest Airlines over unprecedented ‘religious liberty training’ order

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has filed an appeals court amicus brief against a district judge’s order compelling Southwest Airlines attorneys to attend “religious liberty training” by a controversial Christian advocacy organization.

A flight attendant sued Southwest with the claim that she was fired for expressing her opposition to abortion rights — and a jury found in her favor. After the trial concluded, Brantley Starr, a President Trump appointee, ordered the airline to circulate a memo stating that “it may not discriminate against Southwest flight attendants for their religious practices and beliefs.” He subsequently found three lawyers for Southwest in contempt for sending out a notice saying that it “does not” discriminate in such cases. As part of contempt sanctions, he issued an unusual order requiring Southwest’s lawyers to attend training conducted by the Christian nationalist organization Alliance Defending Freedom.

The district court’s diktat that Southwest’s attorneys attend religious liberty training by a controversial Christian advocacy organization is highly unusual and an abuse of the court’s discretion, FFRF contends in its brief submitted before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Additionally, FFRF asserts, if courts are allowed to order attorneys to attend training by a specific ideological advocacy group, they must be allowed to order attorneys to attend training by any other advocacy organization as well. Allowing the district court’s order to stand would set a dangerous precedent, the state/church watchdog concludes.

“The district court broke from centuries of tradition and betrayed the trust that our citizens and system place in the judiciary by ordering Southwest’s attorneys to attend religious liberty training conducted by a controversial and agenda-driven Christian advocacy organization,” FFRF’s brief states. “This [appeals] court now has the opportunity and duty to overturn the district court’s order that Southwest’s attorneys attend this training, and by doing so affirm the trust that Americans place in their judges to act with dignity and fairness in accordance with law.”

The Alliance Defending Freedom is a controversial, agenda-driven Christian legal advocacy organization that “advances the God-given right to live and speak the Truth.” The organization has been involved in numerous Supreme Court cases over the last 30 years in an ongoing effort to shape federal law to fit its religious worldview. The education programs the group typically offers promote a specific Christian view of law and advocacy. It litigates against abortion and LGBTQ-plus rights, and its revenues in 2022 were almost $75 million.

When district courts order attorneys to attend training as part of sanctions, the courts, wisely, exercise their discretion temperately and refrain from ordering attorneys to attend training conducted by specified advocacy organizations — until now. Further, FFRF maintains, the district court’s order was an abuse of discretion. “Our adversarial legal system allows attorneys to disagree with a judge’s personal views regarding religious liberty, thus it is inappropriate for a judge to castigate the losing side of a case by requiring attorneys to attend training with the apparently punitive intention of re-educating or shaming the attorneys for holding viewpoints that do not align with the judge’s,” says FFRF’s brief.

And if a court may order attorneys to attend training conducted by a group such as Alliance Defending Freedom, there is no principled distinction that would prevent courts from similarly ordering attorneys to attend training conducted by other advocacy organizations, such as, say, Lambda Legal, the ACLU, the National Women’s Law Center or FFRF itself. Any attempt to argue that a district court may order attorneys to attend Alliance Defending Freedom training but not from other advocacy organizations (such as those listed above) would run afoul of the First Amendment, FFRF underscores.

“Rather than creating an avenue for judges to insert their personal viewpoint into sanctions orders by allowing for the selection of specific advocacy organizations to conduct training, this [appeals] court has the opportunity to keep Pandora’s box firmly shut,” says the FFRF brief. “The court should seize this opportunity.”

All this is why the Freedom From Religion Foundation entreats the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals: “This court must reverse the order by the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas, and rule that the district court abused its discretion by ordering Southwest’s attorneys to attend religious liberty training conducted by a controversial Christian advocacy organization.”

FFRF Attorney Sam Grover is the counsel of record for this brief, which was filed in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Sammi Lawrence, FFRF’s Anne Nicol Gaylor Legal Fellow, is the brief’s primary drafter.

The purposes of the Freedom From Religion Foundation are to educate the public about nontheism and to preserve the cherished constitutional principle of separation between religion and government. FFRF works as an umbrella for those who are free from religion (freethinkers, atheists, agnostics, and nonbelievers). It currently has over 40,000 U.S. members and several chapters across the country, including more than 1,700 members and a chapter in Texas.

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