The Supreme Court ruled unanimously that plaintiffs whose religious rights were violated can sue government employees individually for monetary damages.
Last week, the United States Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Tanzin v. Tanvir (decided 12/10/2020) that plaintiffs whose rights were violated under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 can sue government agents for monetary damages. RFRA, as it is currently understood, applies to actions of the Federal Government. Justice Amy Coney Barrett was not involved in the decision as she joined the bench after the oral argument took place in October.
The case involves Muslim-Americans who alleged that several FBI agents wrongfully put them on the “no-fly” list after they refused to act as informants against fellow Muslims in terrorism-related investigations.
Muhammad Tanvir, Jameel Algibhah, and Naveed Shinwari were U.S. citizens or green card holders who sued FBI agents in their personal capacity and said that they should be held personally responsible if they were found liable for violating the RFRA.
Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for the majority, found that RFRA permits litigants, when appropriate, to obtain money damages against federal agents in their individual capacities for violating litigants’ right to free exercise of religion under the First Amendment. He noted that although the Court had ruled that states could not be sued for monetary damages under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIP) which also allows for “appropriate relief against a government” for regulations, the current case “features a suit against individuals, who do not enjoy sovereign immunity.”
He did note that there may be policy reasons that individual officers should not be held liable for monetary damages, but that the policy is an issue for Congress, not the courts, to decide.