The Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) permits lawsuits seeking money damages against individual federal employees.

In 1993, Congress passed RFRA, which would allow litigants to “obtain appropriate relief against a government” if their free exercise of religion was substantially burdened.

In this case, Tanzin v. Tanvir (cert. granted November 22, 2019), officials from the FBI asked individual members of a Muslim community, who had legally immigrated to the United States and are now either citizens or permanent residents, to act as informants against other Muslims. If they refused to cooperate, the agents threatened to place them on the “No-Fly List” or refuse to remove them from the list if they were already on it. The No Fly List is a government-maintained list of individuals purported to pose a risk of terrorism and are not permitted to board commercial planes in the United States.

The demand that they either spy on members of their faith or face deportation created a conflict between “obeying their religious beliefs” or face punishment “by placement or retention on the No-Fly list.”

They sued the federal government asserting, among other things, violation of RFRA, and they sought injunctive relief and monetary damages. Because the threatened action of being placed on the No Fly List did not materialize, the lower courts did not provide injunctive relief.  But the courts did allow the issue of monetary damages to stand.

Whether RFRA permits monetary damages under the “appropriate relief” section of the statute is the main issue, in this case, followed by public policy arguments that making individual employees financially liable would impede their ability to their jobs.

This case has potentially extensive ramifications. If federal agents could be held liable for threatening Muslims who refuse to act as informants against fellow congregants, could they be held responsible if they threaten to fine a business, such as Hobby Lobby, that refuses to provide certain federally mandated contraceptives to its employees on religious grounds?  While the wedding cake cases have primarily been addressed as state-level decisions, the implications for state-level RFRAs might be similar if they contain “appropriate relief” language. The difficulty in these cases is that the term "free exercise of religion" has been broadly defined to encompass a wide range of activities or even associations.

In this case, the federal government appealed a lower court opinion that upheld monetary damages, so in granting certiorari, the Supreme Court is examining whether the lower court made the wrong decision.

The Court has not yet set a date for oral arguments.

Case Name:  FNU Tanzi v. Tanvir (Docket No. 19-71)


(FNU stands for “First Name Unknown”)


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