In a case that involved FBI agents who retaliated against Muslim-Americans and green-card holders who followed the dictates of their faith and refused to cooperate with the FBI by spying on their own communities, the United States Supreme Court ruled in their favor.
As a result of their refusal to cooperate, these individuals were placed on the No Fly List, which caused significant hardship, such as the inability to travel to visit family or for work. Luckily, Congress provided a statutory authorization to sue for violations of religious rights, allowing a plaintiff to receive “appropriate relief against the government.”
Justice Thomas wrote the opinion for the unanimous court.
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA) was enacted in the wake of Employment Div., Dept. of Human Resources of Ore. v. Smith, 494 U. S. 872, to provide a remedy to redress Federal Govern- ment violations of the right to free exercise under the First Amend- ment. Respondents are practicing Muslims who sued under RFRA, claiming that federal agents placed them on the No Fly List for refus- ing to act as informants against their religious communities. They sought injunctive relief against the agents in their official capacities and monetary damages against the agents in their individual capaci- ties. As relevant here, the District Court found that RFRA does not permit monetary relief and dismissed their individual-capacity claims. The Second Circuit reversed, holding that RFRA’s remedies provision encompasses money damages against Government officials.
Held: RFRA’s express remedies provision permits litigants, when appro- priate, to obtain money damages against federal officials in their indi- vidual capacities. Pp. 3–9.
(a) RFRA’s text provides that persons may sue and “obtain appro- priate relief against a government,” 42 U. S. C. §2000bb–1(c), includ- ing an “official (or other person acting under color of law) of the United States,” §2000bb–2(1). RFRA supplants the ordinary meaning of “gov- ernment” with a different, express definition that includes “official[s].” It then underscores that “official[s]” are “person[s].” Under RFRA’s definition, relief that can be executed against an “official . . . of the Unites States” is “relief against a government.” This reading is con- firmed by RFRA’s use of the phrase “persons acting under color of law,” which has long been interpreted by this Court in the 42 U. S. C. §1983 context to permit suits against officials in their individual capacities. See, e.g., Memphis Community School Dist. v. Stachura, 477 U. S. 299, (b) RFRA’s term “appropriate relief” is “open-ended” on its face;
thus, what relief is “ ‘appropriate’ ” is “inherently context dependent.” Sossamon v. Texas, 563 U. S. 277, 286. In the context of suits against Government officials, damages have long been awarded as appropriate relief, and though more limited today, they remain an appropriate form of relief. The availability of damages under §1983 is particularly salient here. When Congress first enacted RFRA, the definition of “government” included state and local officials. In order to reinstate the pre-Smith substantive protections of the First Amendment and the right to vindicate those protections by a claim, §2000bb(b), the reme- dies provision must have encompassed at least the same forms of relief authorized by §1983. Because damages claims have always been avail- able under §1983 for clearly established violations of the First Amend- ment, that means RFRA provides, as one avenue for relief, a right to seek damages against Government employees. The presumption in Sossamon, 563 U. S. 277, is inapplicable because this case does not in- volve sovereign immunity. Pp. 5–9.