U.S. Supreme Court hears argument: Does RFRA allow monetary damages for religious liberty violations?

by | Oct 12, 2020

Does the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) categorically bar successful plaintiffs from receiving a monetary award? In one of the first cases heard in the new U.S. Supreme Court term, justices heard oral arguments on that question.

In Tanzin v. Tanvir, three Muslim plaintiffs claim FBI agents placed them on the “no fly” list as retaliation for refusing to become informants against other Muslims in violation of their religious liberty rights under RFRA. While their case has yet to go to trial, the agents are appealing a ruling by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that money damages are allowed for RFRA suits against individuals in their personal capacity.

In their questioning, the justices focused on the specific language in RFRA and Congress’ intention in passing it. One point of emphasis was the fact that some violations cannot be addressed unless money damages are allowed because an injunction from a court would come too late to serve any purpose.

Here is an excerpt from the transcript of oral arguments:

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: One of the things that concerns me greatly is that RFRA was very concerned, at least Congress was, with the many families whose loved ones were being subjected to autopsies, in violation of their religious beliefs, and, in fact, there was a lot of testimony before Congress about the fact that injunctive relief would not help those families. So, if that was one of the concerns of this legislation, as is many other actions by government officials that might violate religious beliefs, why do you think Congress would have intended to preclude money damages against individual actions that violated religious belief?

You can hear audio of the oral argument here.

BJC joined a friend-of-the-court brief in this case with the Christian Legal Society, authored by church-state scholar Douglas Laycock. The brief urges the Court to rule that money damages should be available against individual government actors in some situations to address harm done by violations of RFRA. “There have been few damage suits against federal officers under RFRA, and there will never be many,” the brief explains. “But damages are essential in certain situations.”

The 8-member Court that heard the argument is expected to rule sometime before the end of June.

You can read the entire brief here. For more background on RFRA, see BJC’s RFRA anniversary page.