Dear Supporter Ji,
I hope this message finds you well! This is Amrith Kaur, the Legal Director at the Sikh Coalition, writing to you about another amicus brief. This time, we collaborated with Stanford Law School’s Religious Liberty Clinic about the importance of addressing damages when Sikhs and others are discriminated against under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).
Currently, when someone files a lawsuit under RFRA--alleging that their religious rights were violated by the federal government--they can’t be awarded money as compensation. For example, if a federal employee is denied the right to maintain their articles of faith while at work and has to file a lawsuit under RFRA, they won’t get any monetary compensation for the time during which their rights were violated--including, say, for time when they were suspended or couldn’t go to their job. A requirement to provide compensation isn’t just about making things right for these individuals, though: It also deters the government from similar abuses in the future.
When Congress enacted RFRA, we believe they intended for people who faced religious discrimination to be able to get all manner of relief and damages, including money. The language in the RFRA statute that allows for people to file a lawsuit is very similar to language in other statues which do allow for monetary compensation, so it would make sense that RFRA would allow for a monetary award too. Often, even routine enforcement of general policies can infringe on religious minorities’ abilities to exercise their faith. Sometimes, these violations only take a matter of minutes--like when TSA agents extend their authority in the search of a Sikh at airport screening. While the infringement may not last very long and the government may take steps to correct their actions moving forward, the individuals who have been harmed should be fairly compensated--and the government should be motivated not to violate anyone's rights that way again.
On February 12, 2020 the Sikh Coalition jointly filed an amicus brief--a document that provides the U.S. Supreme Court with additional information and perspective--in the matter of Tanzin v. Tanvir. In this case, a group of Muslim men refused to act as FBI informants on their community and suffered retaliation, including by being placed on a “no fly” list. This action by the federal government was a major infringement of their religious rights, and was a clear attempt to force these Muslims to inform on other Muslims. They filed a lawsuit under RFRA, causing the FBI to remove their names from the list. However, when they tried to get money as part of their damages for the FBI’s conduct, the court held that the men were not entitled to monetary relief under the RFRA statute. The Supreme Court is now reviewing the case to determine whether these men can actually claim monetary damages even after the government fixed the underlying problem. While this case is about the experiences of Muslims, we wanted to make sure the Sikh perspective on this issue was heard, because RFRA is meant to protect religious minority groups like ours.
Most recently, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit reversed the District Court and agreed with the Muslim men that the government should pay damages under RFRA lawsuits. The government appealed, and today, the Supreme Court hears this case to decide whether the ruling that gives justice to religious minorities like Sikhs will stand. We and our partners hope that the Supreme Court decides to hold the federal government accountable for violating the free exercise of religion by allowing for monetary compensation for those whose rights were violated--including Sikhs who face discrimination--and deters the federal government from further harmful behavior.
Our brief was included in the list cited by SCOTUSblog, which tracks important cases that are before the Supreme Court; you can click that link to learn more about this case as it moves forward. Regardless of the outcome of this case, the Sikh Coalition will continue to work to ensure that the religious rights of Sikhs and other minority groups are protected from discrimination--whether from the federal goverment, private employers, or anyone else. If you or someone you know has faced bias, bigotry, or backlash, reach out to our team for free legal aid. And as always, the Sikh Coalition urges you to practice your faith fearlessly!
The Sikh Coalition
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