US Supreme Court: government agents violating religious liberty liable for monetary damages

Three Muslims who claim the FBI wrongly pressured them into becoming informants on Muslim communities may seek monetary damages as part of their lawsuit under a federal religious freedom law, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in a decision that strengthens legal action on religious freedom problems.

“This unanimous decision from the Supreme Court makes it clear that government actors have to take religious freedom seriously—they can’t change their tune and then avoid the consequences of their previous bad behavior,” Lori Windham, senior counsel at the Becket legal group, told CNA Dec. 11.

Windham said the court ruled that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act “gives religious claimants another way to protect their rights.”

“Again and again, we have seen cases where a government official violates someone’s religious freedom rights, then backs down when he or she has to go to court,” she said. “That leaves the religious person without any way to protect her rights in the future.”

The Becket Fund, a legal group focused on religious freedom issues, had filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court case Tanzin v. Tanvir.

The case ruled on a lawsuit brought by three Muslim men, Muhammad Tanvir, Jameel Algibhah, and Naveed Shinwari, who said they were placed on the FBI’s No-Fly list in order to pressure them to act as informants on Muslim communities. They sought damages against individual officers, saying the matter falls under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which bars government from unlawfully burdening religious practice.

The Supreme Court sided with the plaintiffs 8-0. Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who is new to the court, did not participate because the cases were argued before she was confirmed.

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