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Supreme Court Rules Federal Agents Who Violate Religious Freedoms Can Be Sued Directly

"US Supreme Court" by *rboed* is licensed under CC BY 2.0

On Thursday, the US Supreme Court ruled that federal agents can be forced to pay for religious liberty violations out of their own pocket.

The ruling sets the stage for three Muslim men to be able to seek monetary damages from FBI agents who allegedly placed them on the no-fly list as retaliation for turning down requests to become informants. Ruby Ridge anyone?  Justice Clarence Thomas delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.  Do you have any idea how difficult it is to get all 9 of those black robes to agree on something?

“This is a good decision that makes it easier to hold the government accountable when it violates Americans’ religious liberties,” said Lori Windham of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the group that filed an amicus brief supporting the plaintiffs.

The plaintiffs in Thursday’s case, Muhammad Tanvir, Jameel Algibhah, and Naveed Shinwari, are Muslim citizens or green card holders who say FBI special agents tried to get them to become informants in NYC and overseas. For example, Algibhah claimed that agents asked him to attend particular mosques, behave like an extremist, and engage on online Islamic forums.

Whereas I fully agree that the federal government should go after Islamic terrorists, but it is wholly unamerican try attempt to force citizens to become an agent of the state against their will.  I don’t give it damn what you’re religion, in America that is appalling.

All three men declined to participate, citing their religious beliefs, which in this case is the Muslim faith.  They argued that informing amounts to bearing false witness, worshiping under false pretenses, and betraying the trust of fellow Muslims.   And because they refused to inform the government agents, they saw themselves added to the no-fly list.  Pretending to be a part of a group that the government is targeting should be done by either federal agents or American citizens who volunteer to do it.   There is nothing wrong with the federal government asking fellow citizens to help them in their pursuits to fight crime, but it shouldn’t be coercive, and the line is drawn when the government then punishes citizens who refuse to participate.

“The agents relied upon what they assumed would be the irresistible coercion of the no-fly list—causing each [plaintiff] to be placed on the list and then either threatening to keep him on the list for refusing to accede to the FBI’s demands, or offering the incentive of being removed from the list in exchange for services as an FBI informant,” the plaintiffs’ lawyers wrote in a brief to the justices.

This is no different than how the FBI treated Lt. General Michael Flynn [retired] when he could not give them dirt on President Donald Trump, because there was none to give, and they threatened to go after his son who worked for his father’s company.

The Muslim men then filed a lawsuit using the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which I will argue is one of the reasons why the RFRA was created, because the government started abusing religious freedoms.  You might disagree with someone’s reasons to not play along, but that does not give the government the right to abuse a person’s religious freedoms.  The government, and sometimes liberals, forget that the latter part of the  First Amendment’s Freedom of Religion clause (not Freedom from Religion) says “…or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;”  many people forget that latter part and only focus on the former that says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…”

While the plaintiffs names were removed from the no-fly list they are seeking monetary compensation not from the government, but straight out of the agents’ wallets of those who were involved.   Apparently they are not seeking large payouts from the government, but just to be reimbursed for their financial losses.  For example, Tanvir wasn’t able to get a full refund from the airline when he had to cancel a trip to visit his mother who is sick and living in Pakistan.  Others lost job opportunities because they weren’t able to travel by air.

What a vicious and vindictive thing for those agents to do.  Where I grew up we called something like that being a jerk.

The Trump administration argued against agents be liable to pay out of their own pockets for the reason that such a ruling could affect split-second decisions that could affect national security decisions.  Whereas not in this case, sometimes an agent could make an honest mistake, and if agents are held to be personally liable for honest mistakes, the agent might think twice about doing their job, and that could harm the United States in general.   The lawyers for the government argued that the RFRA stipulates that plaintiffs can seek damages against the government and not individuals.

In his opinion for the Court, Thomas said RFRA’s text creates an expansive definition of “government” that covers individual officials.

“A ‘government,’ under RFRA, extends beyond the term’s plain meaning to include officials,” Thomas wrote. “And the term ‘official’ does not refer solely to an office, but rather to the actual person ‘who is invested with an office.'”

The decision also mentioned that “qualified immunity,” which is a legal principle that provides government agents performing discretionary functions immunity from civil lawsuits unless the plaintiff can show that the agent violated “clearly established statutory or constitutional rights” of which a reasonable person would have known, could block the impact of this ruling.

The case is No. 19-71 Tanzin v. Tanvir.


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