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Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas

WASHINGTON, D.C., December 11, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) – Americans found to have been wronged by the federal government under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) may sue individual government officials for monetary damages, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Thursday in a unanimous decision.

Tanzin v. Tanvir concerned three Muslim men, a combination of American citizens and legal residents, who were placed on the federal no-fly list in retaliation for refusing to act as government informants for the FBI, SCOTUSblog reports. They sued, leading to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) removing their names from the list, but a lower court ruled they were not entitled to damages under RFRA.

“There is no doubt that damages claims have always been available under §1983 for clearly established violations of the First Amendment,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the majority. “Given that RFRA reinstated pre-[Employment Div., Dept. of Human Resources of Ore. v.] Smith protections and rights, parties suing under RFRA must have at least the same avenues for relief against officials that they would have had before Smith.”

“A damages remedy is not just ‘appropriate’ relief as viewed through the lens of suits against Government employees,” he continued. “It is also the only form of relief that can remedy some RFRA violations. For certain injuries, such as respondents’ wasted plane tickets, effective relief consists of damages, not an injunction.”

Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who was nominated by President Donald Trump and confirmed in October, did not participate in the vote as she was not on the court when it heard arguments in the case.

“We’re glad the Supreme Court unanimously emphasized that the government can’t expect to be let off the hook by simply changing its tune at the last second,” Becket Law senior counsel Lori Windham said in support of the ruling. “This is a good decision that makes it easier to hold the government accountable when it violates Americans’ religious liberties.” 

By making federal employees potentially liable for the actions of their offices, the ruling could have a deterrent effect in a wide range of religious-freedom cases going forward, such as the Catholic Little Sisters of the Poor’s case against being forced to subsidize abortifacients, a threat Democrat Joe Biden has signaled he would revive as president.