November 2020 Church & State Magazine | AU Bulletin

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments last month in a case brought by three Muslim men who are seeking monetary damages for violations of their religious freedom rights.

The men, Muhammad Tanvir, Jameel Algibhah and Na- ­­v­e­ed Shinwari, say they were targeted by the FBI after they refused to become informants and provide information about people attending their mosque. They say they were retaliated against by being put on the federal government’s “no-fly” list, which restricts travel.

The three sued under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), a statute intended to protect religious freedom rights. At issue in the case is whether RFRA allows the plaintiffs to seek monetary damages from individual FBI agents.

RFRA is unclear on this question, although it does allow successful plaintiffs in court to seek “appropriate relief” from the government and its agents.

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,” Ramzi Kassem argued. “My clients lost precious years with loved ones, plus jobs and educational opportunities.”

But U.S. Deputy Solicitor General Edwin S. Kneedler disagreed, telling the court that Congress rarely allows monetary damages against the federal government “to prevent the chilling effects for the executive branch from the prospect of personal liability and protracted litigation for its employees.”

Americans United filed a legal brief supporting the men in the Tanzin v. Tanvir case.