The US Supreme Court ruled 8-0 Thursday in Tanzin v. Tanvir Thursday that federal officials can be personally sued for violating a person’s First Amendment right to religious freedom under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).
The case concerned two Muslim respondents whom federal agents placed on the no-fly list after the men refused to act as informants against their Muslim community. Consequently, the respondents sued the federal agents in their personal capacity under the RFRA. The respondents sought monetary damages from the federal agents and an injunction to halt placement on the no-fly list.
In an opinion authored by Justice Clarence Thomas, the Supreme Court permitted the respondents to seek monetary damages and injunctive relief against the federal agents personally. The court’s reasoning revolved around the definition of “government” and “official” in the RFRA:
A “government,” under RFRA, extends beyond the term’s plain meaning to include officials. And the term “official” does not refer solely to an office, but rather to the actual person “who is invested with an office.” … Under RFRA’s definition, relief that can be executed against an “official … of the United States” is “relief against a government.” … Not only does the term “government” encompass officials, it also authorizes suits against “other person[s] acting under color of law.” … The right to obtain relief against “a person” cannot be squared with the Government’s reading that relief must always run against the United States. Moreover, the use of the phrase “official (or other person …)” underscores that “official[s]” are treated like “person[s].” … In other words, the parenthetical clarifies that “a government” includes both individuals who are officials acting under color of law and other, additional individuals who are nonofficials acting under color of law. Here, respondents sued the former.
Upon the initial filing of the suit, the district jourt held that the respondents could not bring the suit personally against the federal agents. The respondents appealed to the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which held that the respondents could sue the agents personally. The federal agents appealed the Second Circuit’s decision to the Supreme Court, resulting in the Thursday opinion.
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