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Supreme Court: Government Can Be Sued for Money Damages When Religious Liberty Is Violated

Michael Foust | ChristianHeadlines.com Contributor | Friday, December 11, 2020
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Supreme Court: Government Can Be Sued for Money Damages When Religious Liberty Is Violated

The U.S. Supreme Court delivered another victory for religious liberty this week when it sided with three Muslim men in a case that could benefit churches, faith-based organizations and the broader Christian community, a legal expert says. 

The justices, in an 8-0 decision Thursday, ruled that the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act allows for lawsuits seeking monetary damages when the federal government violates a person’s religious liberty. Under the ruling, lawsuits can be filed against government officials in their individual capacities.

Although the case involved three Muslim men who were placed and then taken off the No Fly List, the decision could benefit any faith community that sees its religious freedoms violated by the federal government, said Stephanie Taub, senior counsel for First Liberty Institute.   

“It's a victory for religious liberty, primarily because it will stand as a warning to federal officials that they have to be careful to respect religious freedom,” Taub told Christian Headlines. “This decision held that federal officials can be held personally accountable when they knowingly violate clearly established religious liberty rights. So essentially, when we're talking about federal officials that egregiously violate the law to harm people of faith, then they can be on the hook for monetary damages.”

The lawsuit arose after the FBI placed the names of the three Muslim men on the No Fly List after they refused to act as informants against fellow Muslims. The men, though, claimed that their placement on the list was retaliatory, and they sued for monetary damages under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which prevents the government from “substantially burdening a person's exercise of religion.” The FBI’s action, the three men said, cost them money in wasted airline tickets and lost job opportunities. 

After the FBI took the men’s names off the list, the district court dismissed the lawsuit and ruled the 1993 law does not permit monetary relief. 

The U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and sided with the three men, ruling they were owed money under the law. 

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a unanimous decision, authored by Justice Clarence Thomas, affirmed the Second Circuit’s decision. (Justice Amy Coney Barrett did not participate in the case because she was not on the court when oral arguments were heard.)

“We conclude that RFRA’s express remedies provision permits litigants, when appropriate, to obtain money damages against federal officials in their individual capacities,” Thomas wrote.

Monetary damages, Thomas wrote, are not only “appropriate” but sometimes 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,” Thomas wrote.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief siding with the three men, applauded the decision. 

“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,” said Lori Windham, senior counsel at Becket. “This is a good decision that makes it easier to hold the government accountable when it violates Americans’ religious liberties.”

Photo credit: Unsplash/Harold Mendoza

Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chroniclethe Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.