With the Supreme Court’s recent decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, employers shouldn’t be surprised if they find their employees expressing their opinions in the workplace about abortion. It goes without saying that this can be a sensitive issue for many employees, and a recent decision from a federal court in Texas sheds light on how not to handle employees with strong views on abortion.
The plaintiff, Charlene Carter, is a former flight attendant for Southwest Airlines who was terminated for “violations of the Company’s policies related to social media, harassment, and bullying.” According to Carter, she holds “sincere religious beliefs [that] require her to share with others that abortion is the taking of a human life.” Carter made a post on her union’s Facebook page in which she expressed her opposition to abortion and the union’s participation in the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. Carter also sent a private Facebook message to the union President, in which she called the President “Despicable” for participating in the Women’s March as well as several other aggressive messages. The Union president reported these messages to Southwest, and Carter was terminated.
At the heart of this case was whether Carter’s activities were protected by the Railway Labor Act (“RLA”), which governs labor relations in the railroad and airline industries. According to Carter, the RLA protected her right to criticize union leadership and advocate for changes of leadership. After two failed attempts by the union and the airline to get Carter’s lawsuit dismissed, a Texas federal jury awarded Carter a whopping $5.1 million in damages.
Although not all employees fall under the RLA, and therefore this decision does not necessarily impact employers in every industry, the takeaway is still clear: employers must be careful about how they deal with employees who express their views on sensitive topics such as abortion—especially views and opinions with religious and political bases. In Washington, D.C., political affiliation is considered a protected category, just like race or sex, and discrimination based on opposition to abortion could very well constitute political affiliation discrimination. Moreover, discrimination based on religion is prohibited under Title VII, as well as state and county laws in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. However, there is a thin line between an employee expressing their own religious beliefs and harassing their coworkers for having different beliefs. If an employer wants to terminate an employee for harassing their co-workers, they should consult with an attorney to make sure the decision wouldn’t constitute unlawful discrimination.