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Supreme Court questions if religious freedom law prohibits monetary damages

The justices considered whether three Muslim men were entitled to monetary damages under the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act. They claim being on the list cost them jobs and opportunities.

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The Supreme Court building is seen in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020, as the justices continue arguments in a new term without their colleague, the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday in a religious freedom case involving three Muslim men who sued FBI agents for monetary damages over their inclusion on the no-fly list. 

The three men — Muhammad Tanvir, Jameel Algibhah and Naveed Shinwari — claimed they were placed on the no-fly list after they refused FBI agents’ requests that they become informants and spy on the Muslim community, which would violate their faith.

“Federal agents put my clients on the no-fly list because they refused to spy on innocent coreligionists in violation of their Islamic beliefs,” Ramzi Kassem, a lawyer representing the men, said to the justices hearing arguments by telephone. “My clients lost precious years with loved ones, plus jobs and educational opportunities.”

The case was first filed in New York Federal Court in 2013 by Tanvir, seeking removal from the no-fly list as well as monetary damages under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which limits the federal government or its officials from substantially burdening a person’s exercise of religion.

In 2014, the case was amended to include additional plaintiffs and name 24 FBI agents as defendants. In 2015, Tanvir and the other men were removed from the no-fly list, and the district court dismissed the lawsuit. But in 2018 the men’s right to sue for monetary damages under RFRA was upheld by the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals.

The federal government, which is representing the FBI agents named in the suit, appealed to the Supreme Court, creating an unusual situation of the current administration defending itself against a religious freedom claim.

But the men’s ability to practice their faith was not an issue in Tuesday’s hearing. The central question in the precedent-setting case is whether the RFRA allows for individuals to sue government employees for monetary damages. The federal government has argued it doesn’t, and doing so would open the “floodgates to countless lawsuits against government officials,” according to a SCOTUSblog summary of case.

According to The New York Times, Edwin S. Kneedler, a lawyer for the federal government, argued Tuesday that the RFRA allowed for “appropriate relief,” which has been understood to exclude suits for money.

But several justices questioned whether Congress intended to prohibit monetary damages under the RFRA claims.

“Justice Neil M. Gorsuch focused on the phrase ‘appropriate relief.’ He said it suggested that courts may ‘provide any kind of relief available, appropriate to the circumstances,’” the Times reported. “But Justice Elena Kagan said that Congress would not have lightly subjected federal officials to suits for money. ‘Congress really has to be clear to do this,’ she mused, ‘and Congress hasn’t been so clear.’”

The case has attracted interest from a broad range of civil liberties and religious freedom groups, including the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. The nonprofit public interest law firm filed a friend of the court brief, urging the Supreme Court to allow Tanvir and the other men to be compensated under the RFRA.

“In the United States of America, no one should be targeted by government agents solely because of their religious beliefs,” Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket, said in a press release.

Attorneys representing the men explained that awarding monetary damages to their clients would send a clear message to federal agents that they must respect religious freedom.

“The Religious Freedom Restoration Act is not specific to the political right or left and it’s not specific to any one religion, so any one whose religious freedom — whose religious exercise — is substantially burdened by the government as defined in the law would be able to invoke this law,” Kassem told the Deseret News at a press conference following the hearing.

Tanvir told reporters he brought the case because “I don’t want anyone else to experience what I did.”

The justices are expected to rule on the case sometime before July.