Religious freedom cases often split the Supreme Court on predictable right and left ideological lines. In recent years, several such cases have been among the most controversial and controversial to be decided by the judges. Today, however, the Court of Justice ruled an important issue of religious freedom and achieved full unanimity. In the Tanzin v. Tamvir case, the judges agreed that the Law Restoring Religious Freedom allows plaintiffs to receive monetary damages against individual federal officials who violated their rights. The decision was drafted by the conservative judiciary Clarence Thomas and accompanied by all seven other judges who tried the case (newly appointed judge Amy Coney Barrett did not attend because she was not on trial at the time of the argument). I previously wrote about the issues this case is about.
Here are some key passages from Thomas’s opinion for the Tribunal:
The 1993 Law for the Restoration of Religious Freedom (RFRA) forbids the federal government from placing a significant burden on religious practice unless there is an overriding interest that is being pursued with the least restrictive means. 107 Stat. 1488, 42 USC §2000bb ff. It also gives a person whose religious practice has been unlawfully charged the right to seek “appropriate relief”. The question here is whether “reasonable relief” includes claims for monetary damages against government officials in their individual capacity. We believe that is the case.
Interviewees Muhammad Tanvir, Jameel Algibhah and Naveed Shinwari practice Muslims who claim the Federal Bureau of Investigation Agents put them on the no-fly list in retaliation for their refusal to act as whistleblowers against their religious groups. Respondents sued various agents in their official capacity and requested that they be removed from the no-fly list. They also sued the agents for monetary damages in their individual capacity. According to the respondents, the retaliation cost significant sums of money: wasted airline tickets and lost income from job opportunities …
We must first determine whether injured parties can sue government officials in their personal capacity. The RFRA text gives a clear answer: you can. Individuals may sue “against a government”, Section 2000bb – 1 (c), and receive relief, which is defined as “a branch, department, agency, instrumentality and civil servant (or any other person acting under the color of the law ) United States States. ” §2000bb – 2 (1) (emphasis added)….
The question then becomes, what does “adequate relief” mean. Without a legal definition, we turn to the simple meaning of the term at the time of entry into force. “Adequate” means “[s]particularly suitable or suitable, right. “1 Oxford English Dictionary, 586; see also Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary 57 (10th Edition 1996) (” particularly suitable or compatible “). Because that language is” open “on its face, what relief is” appropriate “, is “inherently contextual.” Sossamon v. Texas, 563 US 277, 286 (2011) (interpretation of identical language).
Compensation for damages has long been given as reasonable relief in connection with lawsuits against government officials.
Compensation against federal civil servants is limited, but still an appropriate form of relief today …
Compensation for damages is not just “reasonable” relief when viewed from the standpoint of lawsuits against government employees. It is also the only form of relief that can fix some RFRA violations. With certain injuries, such as For example, respondents’ wasted airline tickets, effective relief consists of damage and not an injunction. See e.g. B. DeMarco v. Davis, 914 F. 3d 383, 390 (CA5 2019) (destruction of religious property); Yang v. Sturner, 728 F. Supp. 845 (RI 1990), opinion withdrawn 750 F. Supp. 558 (RI 1990) (autopsy of son who violated Hmong beliefs)…. [I]It would be strange to interpret RFRA in such a way that courts cannot provide such relief.
As Thomas notes, this decision is important because monetary damage is often the only remedy available to RFRA claimants. This is such a case as there is no other way to compensate plaintiffs for the losses they suffered as a result of the FBI’s discriminatory decision to put them on the no-fly list.
Given the strength of the plaintiffs’ case, it is not surprising that the court ruled in their favor. However, it is noteworthy that the verdict was so clear and unanimous. After a hearing, some observers, including myself, thought that a number of conservative judges could vote for the government, or at least that we would make a broken decision with different consensus opinions that would limit its effectiveness. That obviously didn’t happen. The Tribunal agreed, and Thomas’s opinion does not secure or crush words.
Not only is the ruling a win-win for plaintiffs and prospective RFRA applicants seeking monetary damages, but also a reprimand for the Trump administration. Despite the alleged emphasis on promoting religious freedom, the government had argued that law enforcement officers could not be monetarily harmed in such cases.
The ruling also counteracts claims that the court – especially the Conservative judges – only approves claims to religious freedoms if the plaintiffs are Christians, and especially hostile if they are Muslims. In this case, the applicants were Muslims who competed against a large federal law enforcement agency. Still, they won a unanimous decision from the Supreme Court.
I don’t give in to anyone (or at least very few) when speaking out against the horrific court ruling on the 2018 travel ban, which also included discrimination against Muslims. But I also think that the result was not caused by the double standards of judges against Muslims, but by a more general double standard in immigration cases, in which many constitutional rights receive far less protection than in other contexts. This double standard is grossly wrong and should be removed. But it is not the same as discrimination against Muslims as such by the courts.
Meanwhile, this case is a major win for religious freedom and a setback for the Trump administration and abusive federal officials. The finding also adds to the ample evidence that the courts – at least outside the immigration context – do indeed do a good job of protecting religious freedom, which enjoys stronger judicial protection today than at virtually any other time in US history.