Originally Published in USA Today
Richard Wolf - December 10, 2020
WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court's increasingly fervent support for religious freedom was extended Thursday to three Muslim men placed on a no-fly list as punishment for refusing to become government informants.
In a unanimous ruling written by Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, the court ruled that the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 permits monetary damages, in addition to injunctive relief.
The case involved Muhammad Tanvir, Jameel Algibhah, and Naveed Shinwari, all practicing Muslims. They claimed that FBI agents put them on the government's no-fly list because they would not spy on fellow Muslims.
The Department of Homeland Security eventually removed the restriction and allowed them to fly, mooting part of the case. But the men claimed that the retaliation cost them income from lost job opportunities, in addition to having airline tickets wasted.
"A person whose exercise of religion has been unlawfully burdened may 'obtain appropriate relief against a government,'" Thomas wrote, quoting the federal law. The term 'government' extends to individual officials, he said.
"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 (Religious Freedom Restoration Act) violations," Thomas wrote.
New Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett did not participate in the case because she was not confirmed in time to hear oral argument in October.
The high court consistently has defended religious freedom in recent years, most recently last month when it blocked rules in New York and California that severely restricted gatherings at houses of worship in areas hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.
Associate Justice Samuel Alito recently told the conservative Federalist Society that COVID-19 restrictions have resulted in "previously unimaginable restrictions on individual liberty." He denounced high court rulings that he said discriminated against religious groups and argued that the pandemic highlighted a wider assault on religious freedom.