Justices Say Muslims Put On No-Fly List Can Seek Damages
By Jimmy Hoover
Law360 (December 10, 2020, 11:27 AM EST) — The U.S. Supreme Court said Thursday that a group of Muslim plaintiffs can seek money damages from FBI agents who allegedly placed them on the no-fly list after they refused to become informants, saying that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act allows payouts for religious burdens.
In a unanimous 8-0 decision, the court rejected the government’s arguments that RFRA does not allow plaintiffs to sue officials in their personal capacities for money damages under the 1993 statute, which allows for “appropriate relief” for substantial burdens on an individuals’ religious exercise. Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who was sworn into the court after the case was argued, did not participate in the decision.
It “would be odd” to interpret RFRA’s provision allowing “appropriate relief” to exclude money damages, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in the court’s majority opinion. “Had Congress wished to limit the remedy to that degree, it knew how to do so.”
In their lawsuit, a group of Muslim men from New York and Connecticut say the FBI approached them to report information about the Muslim community. They say the FBI used pressure tactics such as threats of deportation and arrest to recruit them as informants. The plaintiffs rebuffed the agency and, according to their complaint, were placed on the no-fly list, an FBI database of individuals with potential links to terrorism and, therefore, barred from flying in the U.S.
The Supreme Court on Thursday upheld a Second Circuit ruling that allowed the plaintiffs to seek money damages under RFRA, though the court did not express an opinion on the merits of the case.
Justice Thomas said that money damages are often “the only form of relief that can remedy some RFRA violations.”
“For certain injuries, such as respondents’ wasted plane tickets, effective relief consists of damages, not an injunction,” he said.
Justice Thomas also dismissed the government’s concerns that allowing plaintiffs to seek payouts under RFRA would raise separation-of-powers concerns and lead potentially to a wave of litigation. “[T]here may be policy reasons why Congress may wish to shield government employees from personal liability, and Congress is free to do so,” Justice Thomas said. “But there are no constitutional reasons why we must do so in its stead.”
The government appeared to be on shaky ground in the case when it was argued in October, when several justices grilled its position that the law’s allowance of “appropriate relief” for religious violations didn’t include money damages.
“The Supreme Court today vindicated our clients’ courageous stand for their religious freedom as Muslims who would not spy on their own faith community,” said CUNY School of Law professor Ramzi Kassem, an attorney for the plaintiffs.
The government could not be reached for comment Thursday.
The government is represented by the U.S. Department of Justice.
The case is FNU Tanzin et al. v. Tanvir et al., case number 19-71, before the U.S. Supreme Court.
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