Muslims placed on the “no-fly list” after refusing to act as informants for the FBI may sue individual federal officials personally for damages under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a unanimous Supreme Court ruled Dec. 10.
The list, maintained by the FBI’s Terrorist Screening Center, is “a small subset of the U.S. government Terrorist Screening Database (also known as the terrorist watchlist) that contains the identity information of known or suspected terrorists,” according to the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). “Individuals on the No Fly List are prevented from boarding an aircraft when flying within, to, from, and over the United States.”
Muhammad Tanvir, Jameel Algibhah, and Naveed Shinwari allege FBI agents entered their names on the list after they refused to help the agency on the grounds that doing so would violate their religious beliefs.
“Rather than accepting that refusal, the FBI agents persisted—in some instances threatening individual Respondents with deportation and arrest and in other instances offering financial incentives and assistance with family members’ immigration to the United States,” their lawyer, Ramzi Kassem, argued in court filings.
Their names were struck from the list a year after they filed suit, mooting their claim for injunctive relief.
At the oral argument in October, Kassem told the Supreme Court that damages needed to be available as a remedy to deter bad behavior by government officials.
“And, here, federal agents put my clients on the no-fly list because they refused to spy on innocent co-religionists, in violation of their Islamic beliefs. My clients lost precious years with loved ones, plus jobs and educational opportunities,” Kassem said.
“Without damages as a deterrent, petitioners and other agents remain free to repeat what they did here, flout RFRA until challenged in court and then back off.”
The high court’s 8–0 decision in Tanzin v. Tanvir is a defeat for the Trump administration, which had argued that lawsuits against individual government employees shouldn’t be allowed because they would deter officials “from performing their duties by the prospect of litigation and potentially severe personal financial consequences.”
Eight justices heard oral arguments in the case on Oct. 6, following the Sept. 18 death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who wasn’t yet a member of the court at the time of the hearing, didn’t participate in the case.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit agreed with the plaintiffs, finding the law allows such lawsuits and giving them permission to pursue their claims against more than two dozen FBI agents—and the Supreme Court agreed.
“The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA) prohibits the Federal Government from imposing substantial burdens on religious exercise, absent a compelling interest pursued through the least restrictive means,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the court.
“It also gives a person whose religious exercise has been unlawfully burdened the right to seek ‘appropriate relief.’ The question here is whether ‘appropriate relief’ includes claims for money damages against Government officials in their individual capacities. We hold that it does.”
Thomas continued: “A damages remedy is not just ‘appropriate’ relief as viewed through the lens of suits against government employees. It is also the only form of relief that can remedy some RFRA violations.”
Thomas wrote that the Trump administration was asking the court to invent a new legal presumption.
‘There may be policy reasons why Congress may wish to shield Government employees from personal liability, and Congress is free to do so. But there are no constitutional reasons why we must do so in its stead. To the extent the Government asks us to create a new policy-based presumption against damages against individual officials, we are not at liberty to do so. … Our task is simply to interpret the law as an ordinary person would. … We cannot manufacture a new presumption now and retroactively impose it on a Congress that acted 27 years ago.”
The RFRA prohibits the federal government from “substantially [burdening] a person’s exercise of religion” unless “application of the burden … is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest” and “is the least restrictive means of furthering that … interest.”
The Supreme Court also cited the RFRA in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2014), when it allowed business owners not to offer birth control coverage to employees if the owner was opposed to contraception on religious grounds.
Plano, Texas-based First Liberty Institute lauded the court for upholding the RFRA. The firm represented Mary Anne Sause in the case that led to the 2018 Supreme Court decision in Sause v. Bauer. Police had ordered Sause to stop praying in her home, violating her First Amendment rights. The court ruled under the RFRA that the officers were not shielded from liability.
“The Court’s unanimous decision [today] concludes that when federal government employees knowingly trample on religious freedom rights of citizens, the people of faith who are harmed can receive monetary compensation from those officers,” Stephanie Taub, senior counsel at First Liberty Institute, said in a statement.
“This decision sends a message to federal government officials that they face real consequences for knowingly violating the free exercise rights of Americans.”
Jeffrey Wall, acting U.S. solicitor general, didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment from The Epoch Times.