Supreme Court allows Muslim men to sue FBI agents over no-fly list
The Supreme Court on Thursday ruled unanimously in favor of three Muslim U.S. residents who say FBI agents wrongly placed them on the government’s no-fly list as punishment for their refusal to spy on fellow Muslims.
The decision clears the way for the men to sue the agents under a 1993 law that bars the federal government from unduly burdening the free exercise of religion, and permits the men to seek monetary compensation.
“The question here is whether ‘appropriate relief’ includes claims for money damages against Government officials in their individual capacities,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the court. “We hold that it does.”
The 8-0 opinion, decided before Justice Amy Coney Barrett joined the bench, is the latest in a series of recent Supreme Court decisions giving favorable treatment to religious liberty interests.
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 lawsuit arose in 2014 after FBI agents put Muhammad Tanvir, Jameel Algibhah and Naveed Shinwari on the government’s no-fly list. The federal watchlist is designed to prohibit air travel to, from or over the United States by suspected terrorists. It was established before the 9/11 attacks but its use vastly expanded over 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. The court’s Thursday decision affirmed a lower court ruling which found that “appropriate relief” includes claims for money damages against individual government officials.
The opinion amounted to a defeat for the Trump administration.
During oral arguments in October, Edwin Kneedler, who argued the case for the Justice Department, cautioned the justices that allowing individual agents to be held personally responsible would raise a “concern about chilling government employees, especially in this national security context.”
A lawyer for Tanvir and the other two plaintiffs countered 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 attorney Ramzi Kassem, founding director of the group Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility.