On December 10, 2020, , the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in the case of Tanzin vs. Tanvir that the three plaintiffs Muhammad Tanvir, Jameel Algibhah and Naveed Shinwari can seek monetary damages from the FBI agents who placed them on no-fly lists after they refused to spy on fellow congregants at their mosques in New York. The case hinged on the Court’s interpretation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which prohibits the government from placing an undue burden on an individual’s practicing of religion.
Origins of the Case
The case originated when FBI agents asked the plaintiffs in separate incidents to spy on fellow mosque-goers in New York. After the men refused, the FBI placed them on the no-fly list, which prohibited the plaintiffs from taking commercial flights in the U.S. Tanvir, Algibhah, and Shinwari all had relatives living overseas, so flight restrictions were particularly harmful to them.
Ramzi Kassem, a lawyer for the three men, said in court, “Federal agents put my clients on the no-fly list because they refused to spy on innocent co-religionists in violation of their Islamic beliefs. My clients lost precious years with loved ones, plus jobs and educational opportunities.”
The plaintiffs also described a range of other harassment from FBI agents. Tanvir said that his passport was confiscated and later returned to him, he was accused of being a member of the Taliban, threatened with arrest, and promised immigration benefits for his wife overseas.
Homeland Security removed the men from the no-fly list after they filed a lawsuit against the FBI agents. As a result, a federal district court ruled that the lawsuit was moot. However, the 2nd Court of Appeals reversed that decision, sending the case to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court’s unanimous 8-0 ruling upheld the decision of the 2nd Court of Appeals. Justice Clarence Thomas delivered the opinion.
He stated that the FBI’s actions violated the RFRA, which prevents the government from placing an undue burden on an individual’s religious practice. There is an exception if the burden “furthers a compelling governmental interest; and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.” Neither circumstance applied in this case.
The basis for the lawsuit was the RFRA’s provision that individuals can “obtain appropriate relief against a government” for causing an undue burden on their religious practice. Moreover, the individuals can sue the government agents, in this case FBI agents, in their personal capacities.
In reference to the same provision, Justice Thomas stated that monetary compensation is not only appropriate under the circumstances, but that it is the only way of remedying the injuries that the FBI’s actions caused to the three men for the cost of plane tickets and lost job opportunities. He stated, “A damages remedy is not just ‘appropriate’ relief as viewed through the lens of suits against government employees. It is also the only form of relief that can remedy some RFRA violations. For certain injuries, such as respondents’ wasted plane tickets, effective relief consists of damages, not an injunction.”
Implications of the Case
The Supreme Court overruled the federal district court’s decision, which stated that the lawsuit was moot once the FBI removed the men from the no-fly list. An amicus brief filed by The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty stated that the decision will no longer permit the FBI to avert lawsuits in the future through such means.
Senior counsel Lori Windham said, “We’re glad the Supreme Court unanimously emphasized that the government can’t expect to be let off the hook by simply changing its tune at the last second.”
The case may also have widespread implications for the Muslim-American community and aliens of Muslim faith visiting the U.S.. Since 9/11, the FBI has often targeted mosques as a focal point for surveillance measures, causing serious issues regarding religious freedom, as was the case in Tanzin vs. Tanvir. The risk that FBI agents now face for placing undue burden on their religious worship may deter the harassment of Muslim citizens across the country.