Tanzin v. Tanvir
For years, courts have worked to determine the scope of religious protections under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and what recourse religious individuals have when the government restricts their religious freedom. Now the Supreme Court is weighing in. Three American Muslim men sued FBI agents in their individual capacities after being placed on the No Fly List — a list of individuals deemed to be terrorist threats to the United States— in retaliation for declining to serve as informants against fellow Muslims. The FBI has since removed them from the No Fly List. Becket is arguing that to hold the government accountable for unjust actions, individual government actors must be able to be held personally responsible for obvious violations of religious liberty protections under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).
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Targeted for their faith
Muhammad Tanvir, Jameel Algibhah and Naveed Shinwari are three American Muslim men who were approached by FBI agents, who asked the men to serve as informants against fellow Muslims. However, their religious beliefs prevented the men from assisting the FBI in this way.
Abuse of power
After the three men declined to serve as informants for the FBI they were placed on the No Fly List—a record of individuals deemed to be terrorist threats to the United States and therefore not permitted to fly. They were told that they could be taken off the list if they agreed to serve as informants for the government.
The three men sued the FBI agents in their individual capacities, arguing that they had coercively abused the use of the No Fly List and, in doing so, had violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) by burdening the men’s religious exercise.
While the case was pending, the FBI took the men off the No Fly List to avoid going to court.
Just recourse for religious discrimination
The district court ruled that the men had no standing to sue because their names had been removed from the No Fly List. They appealed the case to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which rightly ruled in favor of the Muslim men, finding that the FBI agents had, in fact, abused their power by placing the men on the No Fly List in retaliation for their refusal to serve as informants.
The FBI agents appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that they should not be held personally liable for placing the men on the No Fly List.
Frequently, the government changes laws or reverses its behavior to avoid legal trouble. This is a dangerous precedent that allows the government to get away with egregious actions, then deny victims just recourse for the harms they’ve faced. Becket is arguing that to hold the government accountable for unjust actions, individual government actors must be able to be held liable for violating religious freedom under RFRA.
The Supreme Court agreed to review the Second Circuit’s decision in Tanzin v. Tanvir on November 22, 2019. On February 12, 2020, Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of broad protections under RFRA and allowing those whose rights are violated to seek money damages for RFRA claims. The court will hear oral arguments in the case on March 24, 2020.
Importance to Religious Liberty:
• Individual Freedom— The government shouldn’t be able to get out of legal trouble by changing laws and policies when it knows it’s about to lose in court. In order for individuals to have the freedom to exercise their beliefs without government interference, individual government actors who take adverse action against religious liberty must be able to be held responsible.