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Supreme Court hears Trump appeal over Muslims put on 'no-fly list' for refusing to spy

The Supreme Court on Tuesday heard the Trump administration’s appeal in a case involving three U.S. residents whom FBI agents wrongly placed on the federal government’s no-fly list as punishment for their refusal to spy on fellow Muslims.

The men seek to hold the agents personally responsible for what they allege was a pattern of harassment designed to coerce them into becoming government informants in violation of their religious beliefs.

The legal question at hand is whether a federal law that protects the free exercise of religion allows government agents to be sued for monetary damages.

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The lawsuit arose in 2014 after FBI agents put Muhammad Tanvir, Jameel Algibhah and Naveed Shinwari on the government’s no-fly list without justification. The federal watchlist is designed to prohibit air travel from, to or over the United States by suspected terrorists. It was established before the 9/11 attacks but became more widely used in subsequent years.

In Tanvir’s case, being on the list forced him to quit his job as a long-haul trucker because he was unable to fly home after completing long-distance deliveries. In addition to losing money on plane tickets he was barred from using, Tanvir was prevented from visiting his ailing mother in Pakistan for several years.

The men allege their treatment ran afoul of a 1993 federal law called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which generally prohibits the federal government from placing a significant burden on the free exercise of religion.

RFRA also allows victims to sue for “appropriate relief” against the government. But exactly what Congress intended by that term is ambiguous and forms the basis of the dispute before the Supreme Court.

The New York-based 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Tanvir and the two other men in 2018, prompting an appeal from the Trump administration.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) asked the Supreme Court to reverse the 2nd Circuit by finding that RFRA does not permit lawsuits seeking monetary damages against individual government employees.

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Edwin Kneedler, who argued the case for DOJ, cautioned the justices that allowing individual agents to be held personally responsible raises a "concern about chilling government employees, especially in this national security context."

But a lawyer for Tanvir and the other two plaintiffs told the justices that because his clients have been removed from the no-fly list, the only appropriate relief now would be to allow the men to sue the agents for damages.

“Without damages as a deterrent, [these and other agents] remain free to repeat what they did here, flout RFRA until challenged in court, and then back off,” said Ramzi Kassem, founding director of the group Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility, who represents the plaintiffs.