Supreme Court Issues Unanimous Decision in Important Religious Freedom Case
Religious liberty cases often split the Supreme Court along predictable right vs. left ideological lines. In recent years, several such cases have been among the most contentious and controversial decided by the justices. Today, however, the Court decided an important religious liberty issue, and achieved complete unanimity. In Tanzin v. Tamvir, the justices agreed that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act allows plaintiffs to get money damages against individual federal officials who have violated their rights. The decision was written by conservative Justice Clarence Thomas, and joined by all seven other justices who heard the case (newly appointed Justice Amy Coney Barrett did not take part because she wasn’t yet on the Court when the case was argued). I previously wrote about the issues at stake in the case here.
Here are some key passages from Thomas’ opinion for the Court:
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA) prohibits the Federal Government from imposing substantial burdens on religious exercise, absent a compelling interest pursued through the least restrictive means. 107 Stat. 1488, 42 U. S. C. §2000bb et seq. It also gives a person whose religious exercise has been unlawfully burdened the right to seek “appropriate relief.” The question here is whether “appropriate relief ” includes claims for money damages against Government officials in their individual capacities. We hold that it does….
Respondents Muhammad Tanvir, Jameel Algibhah, and Naveed Shinwari are practicing Muslims who claim that Federal Bureau of Investigation agents placed them on the No Fly List in retaliation for their refusal to act as informants against their religious communities. Respondents sued various agents in their official capacities, seeking removal from the No Fly List. They also sued the agents in their individual capacities for money damages. According to respondents, the retaliation cost them substantial sums of money: airline tickets wasted and income from job opportunities lost…..
We first have to determine if injured parties can sue Government officials in their personal capacities. RFRA’s text provides a clear answer: They can. Persons may sue and obtain relief “against a government,” §2000bb–1(c), which is defined to i
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