Everyone agrees that Charlene Carter was a flight attendant for Southwest Airlines for 20 years until she was fired in 2017 following a two-year string of harassing and bullying emails she sent to fellow workers and union leaders.
Everyone disagrees about most everything else.
An original summary judgment favored Southwest while a later jury trial granted a victory to Carter along with millions of dollars in damages. That ruling is being appealed.
Carter claimed the airline discriminated against her religious beliefs and practices because some of the harassing emails she sent out included videos of aborted babies and expressed her opposition to abortion after some Southwest employees who are union members participated in a Women’s March sponsored by Planned Parenthood.
A jury agreed with her and a judge later levied a unique sanction for three Southwest lawyers who failed to properly carry out his orders: Required attendance at “religious liberty training” conducted by Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian legal group founded decades ago by James Dobson of Focus on the Family and other conservative evangelical leaders.
ADF as a partisan organization
That sanction has led to disagreements about whether ADF, a powerhouse Christian legal group with a sectarian philosophy and string of Supreme Court victories, is the best choice for teaching the attorneys about religious liberty.
Courts often sanction people and organizations and require them to receive training on issues such as sexual abuse. Last Friday, ADF and the Freedom from Religion Foundation issued opposing announcements about ADF’s role in such training.
“ADF is well suited to provide comprehensive and professional legal training about the religious liberty requirements of Title VII,” claimed ADF in its statement, citing its role as “a nationally recognized and respected law firm” that has “provided legal training in venues across the country.”
ADF described itself as “an alliance-building, nonprofit legal organization committed to protecting religious freedom, free speech, parental rights and the sanctity of life.” That language is different from ADF’s website, which says ADF “advances the God-given right to live and speak the Truth” and seeks to do “the hard things to which God has called us with the expectation that He will accomplish His purposes.”
The Freedom from Religion Foundation labeled the judge’s “diktat” “unprecedented,” calling it “highly unusual and an abuse of the court’s discretion” and condemned the choice of ADF to lead the training, calling ADF an “agenda-driven” “Christian nationalist” and “controversial Christian advocacy” organization.”
ADF has won Supreme Court cases restricting abortion, gay rights and other hot-button culture war issues. Its view of religious liberty differs significantly from traditional religious liberty groups.
“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,” said FFRF, citing groups such as Lambda Legal, the ACLU, the National Women’s Law Center and itself.
A complex case
During the two years before she was fired, Charlene Carter sent numerous harassing emails to fellow Southwest workers and the airline’s union leadership. Videos of aborted fetuses were accompanied by verbal attacks accusing them of “supporting murder.”
Another email said, “You are nothing but a SHEEP in Wolves Clothing or you are just so uneducated that you have not (sic) clue who or what you were marching for! Either way you should not be using our DUES to have Marched in this despicable show of TRASH!”
Carter was not a union member but she led a campaign to oust union leadership.
Carter was not a union member but she led a campaign to oust union leadership, writing in an email to union leaders, “We have a RECALL right now that we want adhered to with over the 50+ 1% and growing. WE WANT YOU all GONE!!!!!”
She added, “YOU all DISGUST ME!!!!! OH and by the WAY I and so many other of our FAs VOTED FOR TRUMP … so shove that in your Propaganda MACHINE!”
Carter called the union leader “morally bankrupt,” “lacking in morals,” a “criminal,” “Pure Evil,” and a “DISGRACE.” Carter sent another message featuring a picture of a T-shirt calling the union leader a “F***TARD.”
After Carter was fired, the union represented her and negotiated an offer from Southwest to reinstate her. She rejected that offer.
Carter agreed to participate in an arbitration, but when the result favored Southwest, she decided to sue the airline and the union. She was defended by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, a conservative group that opposes compulsory union membership.
Carter won in her jury trial after her lawyers claimed that when she wrote the emails she was “attempting to open a dialogue” by sending “the messages and pro-life videos.”
The decision surprised some lawyers and employment experts. One legal group summarized Carter’s legal victory in an article with this headline: “Despite Violating Numerous Workplace Behavior Policies, Flight Attendant Wins Initial Day in Court.”
The judge in the case is Brantley Starr, a Republican appointee of Donald Trump.