The United States Supreme Court has ruled that three Muslim men can prosecute several FBI agents they accuse of placing them on the government’s “no-fly list” because they refused to become informants.
In an 8-0 ruling Thursday, judges upheld a lower court ruling allowing men, any U.S. citizens or foreign-born permanent residents, to sue for damages under a law of 1993 known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The case, which began in 2013, involves New York residents Muhammad Tanvir and Jameel Algibhah, and Naveed Shinwari, a Connecticut resident.
They said they refused an alleged request by FBI agents to spy on Muslim communities in the United States, arguing that it violated their religious beliefs.
The men claim that officers then placed or kept them on the no-fly list, a secret US government list of people prevented from freely flying, among other restrictions, on the basis of “counterterrorism.”
The men, who have since been removed from the list, said their inclusion prevented them from visiting families in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen, damaged their reputation and cost them job opportunities.
CAIR attorneys challenged the federal government’s so-called Federal Terrorist Watch List – a de facto “Muslim registry” of 1.2 million people created by the US government and shared with many agencies and private entities to discriminate Muslims.#Watchlist#NoFlyList https://t.co/y87YtBZeVr
– Nihad Awad (@NihadAwad) December 10, 2020
“The question here is whether ‘appropriate relief’ includes claims for damages against individual government officials. We believe this is the case, ”Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in the court opinion (PDF).
The 1993 law was intended to ensure that the government had compelling reasons to weigh heavily on the exercise of religion by anyone.
The case was based on part of the law that provided for “appropriate redress against a government”, without defining what kind of redress might be appropriate.
While the trial judge dismissed the case, the Second US Court of Appeals ruled in 2018 that the law allows individual federal agents to be sued for damages.
The administration of US President Donald Trump had challenged the decision, arguing that allowing individuals to sue federal agents for damages would open the door to a multitude of lawsuits.
The Justice Department said it could deter federal employees, including national security officials, criminal investigators and correctional officers, from performing their duties.
Despite the Supreme Court ruling, there is no guarantee that the men will win their case or collect anything from the agents.
Justice Thomas noted that officers could argue that they should be protected from trial by the doctrine of qualified immunity.
The United States Supreme Court has said the doctrine protects public servants as long as their actions do not violate clearly established law or constitutional rights they should have known.
“De facto Muslim register”
Muslims in the United States have long denounced the government’s increased use of the no-fly list, especially after the 9/11 attacks, and the discriminatory treatment many suffered as a result of their listing on the the list.
Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), tweeted on Thursday in response to the Supreme Court ruling that the no-fly list is “a ‘de facto Muslim registry'” created by the US government “to discriminate against Muslims”.
It is not known how many names are on the list, but the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which has deposit prosecutions on behalf of those on the list, said in 2013 that it included more than 47,000 names.
Lori Windham, senior counsel at public interest law firm Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, welcomed Thursday’s ruling.
“It is a good move that makes it easier to hold the government accountable when it violates Americans’ religious freedoms,” Windham said in a statement.
Judge Amy Coney Barrett, a Trump-appointed person who was not a member of the tribunal when the case was argued in October, was not involved in the decision.