Tanzin, et al. v. Tanvir, et al., No. 19-71.  Opinion issued December 10, 2020.


The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”) was Congress’ attempt to re-introduce the highest standard of review for analyses of the constitutionality of laws that burden religion.  To survive a RFRA challenge, a measure that substantially burdens religious exercise must serve a compelling government interest by the least restrictive means. 

Prior to the enactment of RFRA, Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990), a decision that remains both widely criticized and widely discussed, held that in general there is no constitutional offense to be found in generally applicable neutral laws that may incidentally burden religion. Enacted in 1993, RFRA was intended to restore the higher standard of review that Smith was perceived to have eroded.  

The scope of available remedies provided but not enumerated in RFRA is the subject of the case just decided, in which the plaintiffs objected to the government’s having placed them on “no fly” lists because, they asserted, they refused to act as informants for religious communities for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.  

Plaintiffs sued federal officials in their individual capacities.  Claims for injunctive relief were mooted by their removal from “no fly” lists, but plaintiffs would not abandon their claims for money damages.

The trial court that dismissed the claims for monetary damages was reversed by the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which concluded that the language of RFRA providing “appropriate relief” to claimants and permitting actions against “the government” includes federal officials in their individual capacities.  The Supreme Court has agreed. 

Justice Thomas has proffered a textual analysis in support of the Court’s decision to reject the government’s argument that “government” as used in RFRA is limited to acts of officials in their official capacities, and that “government” cannot extend to the individual assets of federal employees which would be reached to satisfy judgments.

An ordinary and limited meaning of a word in a statute changes where Congress chooses to change the use of the word, Justice Thomas observed.  RFRA expands the definition of “government” to include officials or persons acting under color of law.

Officials are “persons” who are answerable under RFRA and judgments against them can be considered to be relief against the government.

Moreover, the “under color of law” language that appears in RFRA echoes the language of a principal civil rights statute, 42 U.S.C. Section 1983, which has been interpreted to apply to suits against officials in their official capacities. 

In general, “appropriate relief” may be fashioned according to context, but from common law forward money damages against officials have been available even where the sovereign itself is immune from suit.

In addition, although the 1988 Westfall Act precludes common law claims against federal officials, constitutional and statutory remedies are preserved.

Just as the language of 42 U.S.C. Section 1983 is an appropriate source of comparison for analysis of the scope of a cause of action under RFRA, so does the availability of money damages under Section 1983 serve as support for recognizing claims for money damages under RFRA. 

This is all the more apt, Justice Thomas states, where Section 1983 permits relief for violations of First Amendment interests.  In that RFRA was intended to return the law to the status quo ante Smith, monetary damages should be available in service of that end, to re-establish and to maintain a full panoply of relief.  

Congress did not limit redress under RFRA to equitable remedies, although it could have, and it is plain that such remedies will not be adequate, and hence not appropriate, Justice Thomas concluded, where costs have been incurred and losses occasioned which cannot be cured by any form of injunctive relief.

Neither the spectre of separation of powers concerns nor the desire for a presumption against monetary damages, as raised by the government, can transform those questions into matters for judicial intervention, the Court continued, where addressing such questions is the province of the legislative branch. 

With policy soundly committed to Congress, the Court noted that its decision does not in any way diminish the availability of qualified immunity defenses. 

JustLawful Observation:  The brevity of this opinion ought not be confused with the scope of its potential reach.  At a minimum, it will have all officialdom on its toes when it comes to matters impacting religion.

19-71 Tanzin v. Tanvir (12_10_2020)

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