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. The Supreme Court decided to weigh in. Three American Muslim men sued FBI agents in their individual capacities after allegedly 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. Just days before they got their day in court, the FBI confirmed that the men were free to fly. Becket argued 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 allegedly 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 allegedly 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. According to their court filings, they were on this list for several years.
The three men sued the FBI agents, 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 their religious exercise.
Just four days before the men got their day in court, the FBI said the men were free to fly, then asked the court to dismiss the case and leave the men without any legal recourse.
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 they had the ability to vindicate their rights in court.
The FBI agents appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that cannot be held 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 heard oral arguments in the case on October 6, 2020 and ruled on December 10, 2020 that the men are entitled to sue for financial relief, saying that it is sometimes the only form of relief that can remedy government violations of religious freedom.
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.