On Thursday, December 10, in a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) allows Muslims to seek money damages against federal officials for being placed on the No Fly List. The case, Tanzin v. Tanvir, involved three practicing Muslim men, Muhammad Tanvir, Jameel Algibhah, and Naveed Shinwari, whom the FBI placed on their No Fly List as punishment for refusing to spy on their communities as informants. While this verdict is a welcome change following the surveillance and discriminatory practices of the post-9/11 era, the federal government still has plenty of wrongs to amend. And this burden cuts across party lines: Republicans and Democrats alike are responsible. Nevertheless, this is a win for religious freedom and civil liberties and offers the American Muslim community some hope for equal protection under the law.
While the Republican Party is largely associated with leading the approach to treat American Muslims as terror suspects without any proof of threat, the Democratic Party is not innocent of such acts either. In 2011, President Obama signed the Patriot Act extension. Then, in 2015, despite civil rights concerns, he renewed the Act. Under his presidency, “the terrorist watchlist grew massively in size, ensnaring thousands of Muslim and Arab Americans.” As political players targeted Muslim communities nationwide through counterrorism policies, American Muslims became dehumanized in the eyes of the American government, and subsequently, as we have seen with the popular support for President Trump’s anti-Islam rhetoric, in the eyes of many Americans.
The verdict on Tanzin v. Tanvir is a departure from the Supreme Court’s “seemingly disparate treatment of Muslim and Christian claimants.” On the discrepancies in ruling between Trump v. Hawaii, which upheld President Trump’s Muslim travel ban, and Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, where SCOTUS ruled in favor of the baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay couple, Asma T. Uddin observes that “the Court’s recent religion rulings have appeared to many as carrying an ideological agenda — one in which minorities like Muslims lose and conservative Christians win.” The unanimous decision indicates a movement toward a more equitable interpretation of religious freedom.
Until now, the general sentiment held that religious freedom laws primarily benefited the Christians. Moreover, years of “the use of informants and other unconstitutional and targeted programs in their communities” have left many American Muslims distrustful of the federal government and void of a sense of security. The precedent of religious freedom established through Tanzin v. Tanvir clears the path to justice for those impacted by surveillance or subject to terror profiling without any evidence of wrongdoing. As Uddin notes, financial liability under the RFRA holds government officials more accountable than a mere lawsuit would. Beyond that, just as the perpetrators of the Patriot Act and similar profiling tactics are not bound to a single party, this SCOTUS win itself can be seen as an achievement for religious groups across the political spectrum.
Some may see this ruling as a double-edged sword free to be wielded by Christian conservatives. However, without religious freedom protections, Muslims and other minority religious groups are more vulnerable to restrictions on their fundamental rights. Moreover, the virtue of our justice system is inherently tied to equality under the law. The precedent established in Tanzin v. Tanvir upholds the fundamental rights of religious groups and protects communities like our own from becoming victims of unwarranted federal profiling and coercion. Ultimately, this is our system of checks and balances in play: the judicial branch checking the overreach of the executive and legislative branches. And that itself is a win.