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Southwest Airlines Faces Legal Battle Over Firing of Anti-Abortion Flight Attendant


NEW ORLEANS — The airline will go back to federal court on Monday to try to overturn a $8,000,000 award to a flight attendant who said she was fired because she was against abortion and a judge’s order that the lawyers for the airline take religious liberty training from a conservative Christian legal group.

Southwest says that flight attendant Charlene Carter was fired because she sent “hostile and graphic” anti-abortion messages to a coworker who was also the head of the local union, which was against company policy that says employees should be polite at work.

Carter said the union leader was “despicable” for going to the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., in 2017. At the march, people protested the inauguration of President Trump and called for protections for abortion rights.

In briefs, Carter’s lawyers say that she told management that she sent the email “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 said that firing her was against a federal rule that protects workers from religious discrimination. They also said that Southwest management and the union, which had complained about Carr’s messages, should be held responsible for her firing.

Federal law says that the airline “may not discriminate against Southwest flight attendants for their religious practices and beliefs.” After the trial, Trump appointed U.S. District Judge Brantley Starr to the bench in 2019 and told the airline to tell the flight attendants this.

Instead, the airline based in Dallas told its workers that it “does not discriminate” and told flight attendants to follow the policy that was used to fire Carter.

In August, Starr found Southwest guilty of contempt for the way it told flight attendants about the case. Southwest was told to pay Carter’s most recent legal fees, and he told them what to say to their workers.

He also told three lawyers from Southwest that they had to get at least eight hours of religious liberty training from the Alliance Defending Freedom. This is training on how to follow federal law that says employers can’t treat people differently because of their religion at work.

The right-wing group has been involved in a number of high-profile court cases. There are efforts to limit transgender rights, defense of a baker and a website designer who didn’t want to work on same-sex marriage projects, and a challenge to long-standing government approval of a drug used in the most common way to end a pregnancy.

In briefs, Carter’s lawyers said that the kind of training that was ordered “is a commonplace civil contempt sanction” and that it doesn’t break the airline’s right to free speech.

The first amount of money that was given to Southwest and the union was $5.1 million, with Southwest having to pay most of it. Due to federal limits on punitive damages, the judge eventually lowered it to about $800,000. This included $450,000 in damages and back pay from Southwest, $300,000 in damages from the union, and interest of about $60,000.

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