The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-0 Dec. 10 that plaintiffs may sue to seek monetary damages under a 1993 law intended to protect religious freedom
The case was brought by three men – Muhammad Tanvir, Jameel Algibhah and Naveed Shinwari – who said they were targeted by the FBI after they refused to become informants and provide information about people attending their mosque. The three say the government retaliated against them by putting them on a “no-fly” list, which restricted their ability to travel.
The men sued under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a statute intended to protect religious freedom rights. The central question in the case was whether RFRA allows the plaintiffs to seek monetary damages from individual FBI agents.
The court said it does.
Writing for the majority, Justice Clarence M. Thomas observed, “We first have to determine if injured parties can sue Government officials in their personal capacities. RFRA’s text provides a clear answer: They can. Persons may sue and obtain relief ‘against a government,’ which is defined to include ‘a branch, department, agency, instrumentality, and official (or other person acting under color of law) of the United States.”
Ramzi Kassem, a lawyer for the men, told the Supreme Court during oral arguments Oct. 6 that in this case, monetary damages are appropriate because the men suffered serious harms.
“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,” Kassem argued. “My clients lost precious years with loved ones, plus jobs and educational opportunities.”
Justice Amy Coney Barrett did not participate in the case. Americans United filed a legal brief supporting the men in the Tanzin v. Tanvir legal challenge.