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Supreme Court rules that religious freedom law allows for monetary damages

A group of Muslim men won the right to sue for financial damages after federal agents put them on the no-fly list.

SHARE Supreme Court rules that religious freedom law allows for monetary damages

The sun rises behind the U.S. Supreme Court as arguments are heard about the Affordable Care Act, Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020, in Washington.

Alex Brandon, Associated Press

Federal employees who violate religious freedom protections can now be held liable for monetary damages they cause after the Supreme Court ruled Thursday that the law allows people of faith to seek financial relief.

Money is “the only form of relief that can remedy some ... violations,” wrote Justice Clarence Thomas in the court’s unanimous decision.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett did not take part in the case because oral arguments took place before her Senate confirmation.

The ruling represents a significant development in the world of religious freedom litigation, which has traditionally only affected the fate of faith-related policies, not federal employees’ pocketbooks.

The case, Tanzin v. Tanvir, was brought by a group of Muslim men who claimed they were put on the FBI’s no-fly list after they refused to become informants to help government agents track their religious communities’ activities. The men said participating in spying would have violated their beliefs.

Once on the list, the men were unable to use airline tickets they’d already purchased or travel to job interviews. The FBI’s actions kept them from advancing their careers, they said.

In their lawsuit, the men alleged that federal agents had violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act when they punished the men for refusing to report on their fellow Muslims.

They sought to be removed from the no-fly list and compensated for costs accrued after they lost access to flights.

“My clients lost precious years with loved ones, plus jobs and educational opportunities,” said Ramzi Kassem, a lawyer representing the group of Muslim men, during oral arguments on Oct. 6.

Even after the FBI removed the men from the list, they continued to seek monetary damages from the individual federal agents who’d approached them.

But lower court judges did not agree on whether federal religious freedom law enabled courts to order financial relief.

A U.S. district court ruled against the group of Muslims, deciding that people of faith cannot use the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which prohibits the government from interfering with religious practices unless it has no less restrictive way to achieve a compelling public interest, to sue government officials for financial damages in their personal capacity.

The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals later overturned that decision, which forced the FBI agents, who were represented by the federal government, to appeal to the Supreme Court.

During oral arguments, the justices considered how to interpret the Religious Freedom Restoration Act’s promise of “appropriate relief” and whether a ruling in favor of the Muslim men would interfere with government activities.

The government had argued that creating an opportunity for people of faith to recoup financial damages from individual employees would make it harder for those employees to do good work.

“The court of appeals’ ... ruling clears the way for a slew of future suits against national security officials, criminal investigators, correctional officers and countless other federal employees,” the government wrote in its appeal to the Supreme Court. It “creates significant practical problems both for individual federal employees and the executive branch more broadly.”

In their decision, the Supreme Court justices acknowledged the government’s concerns, but said the text of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act does not prohibit people of faith from suing for monetary damages.

“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,” Thomas wrote.

Many religious freedom advocates had hoped for such a ruling, arguing that sometimes correcting government missteps requires doing more than changing a problematic policy.

“This is a good decision that makes it easier to hold the government accountable when it violates Americans’ religious liberties,” said Lori Windham, senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, in a statement about the decision.