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Victory: U.S. Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Individuals Wrongly Placed on ‘No Fly List’ as Retaliation for Not Spying on Religious Brethren

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Published on: December 18, 2020

WASHINGTON, DC — In an 8-0 ruling that affirms the right of religious individuals to not be persecuted for their faith, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in favor of three men who were allegedly placed on a “no fly” list as retaliation for refusing to act as FBI informants within their religious communities. The Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling in Tanzin v. Tanvir (Justice Amy Coney Barrett did not take part) sends a clear message to government agents that violations of religious freedom will have consequences, among these that federal agents can be held liable for monetary damages (“appropriate relief”) under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). The case arose after three Muslim men were allegedly placed on the government’s “no fly” list in retaliation for refusing to become informants on members of their religious community. The resulting lawsuit sought to have the men’s names removed from the No Fly List and to reimburse them monetarily for wasted airline tickets and income from lost job opportunities. The Rutherford Institute filed an amicus brief in Tanzin arguing that RFRA clearly authorizes recovery of damages for deprivations of religious liberty.

Attorneys Michael J. Lockerby, George E. Quillin, Rachel Kingrey O’Neil, Kevin P. Brost, Lea Gulotta, Joshua M. Hawkes, and Akiesha Gilcrist Sainvil of Foley & Lardner LLP assisted The Rutherford Institute in advancing the arguments in Tanzin.

“All rights hang together. That is both the genius and the strength of the American framework of rights,” said constitutional attorney John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of Battlefield America: The War on the American People. “The Framers of the U.S. Constitution understood that religious freedom was for everyone, not just one particular group of religious beliefs. In other words, the only way that freedom can prevail for Christians, for example, is for Christians to stand up and fight for the religious beliefs of others. Without it, religious freedom for all people of faith will be lost.”

In 1993, Congress enacted the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in response to a U.S. Supreme Court decision that limited the protection granted by the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment. RFRA provides that a person may sue the federal government and officials for causing a “substantial burden” on the person’s exercise of religious beliefs. The statute also allows persons to recover “appropriate relief” in a successful RFRA lawsuit. In 2013, three Muslim men filed a RFRA lawsuit against the government and several FBI agents alleging that their rights to freedom of religion were violated when they were placed on the government’s “no-fly list” because they refused to act as FBI informants and provide information about persons within their Muslim communities. None of the men were suspected terrorists. The lawsuit asked that the men’s names be removed from the “no-fly” list and that the FBI agents pay for the harm they inflicted, which included emotional distress, loss of employment opportunities and loss of airline tickets. Although the government eventually removed the men from the no-fly list, the FBI agents moved to dismiss the case, arguing that the men were not entitled to an award of money damages under RFRA. In its amicus brief before the U.S. Supreme Court, The Rutherford Institute argued that damage awards under RFRA are necessary to deter federal agents from depriving individuals of their religious freedom in the future.

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The Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties organization, provides legal assistance at no charge to individuals whose constitutional rights have been threatened or violated and educates the public on a wide spectrum of issues affecting their freedoms.

The Supreme Court’s opinion in Tanzin v. Tanvir

The Rutherford Institute’s amicus brief in Tanzin v. Tanvir

Article posted with permission from John Whitehead

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