By Andrew Chung
(Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday agreed to hear a bid by President Donald Trump's administration to shield FBI agents from a lawsuit by three American Muslim men who said they were placed on the government's "no-fly list" for refusing to become informants.
The justices will take up the administration's appeal of a lower court ruling allowing the men, all U.S. citizens or permanent residents who were born abroad, to sue under a 1993 federal law called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The law was aimed at ensuring that the government had compelling reasons to substantially burden any person's exercise of religion. At issue is a part of the law that provides for "appropriate relief against a government," without defining what type of relief may be appropriate.
The Manhattan-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2018 ruled that New York City residents Muhammad Tanvir and Jameel Algibhah and Connecticut resident Naveed Shinwari could pursue their lawsuit. They are seeking monetary damages, saying they were put on the no-fly list despite no evidence showing they threatened airline or passenger safety.
The men, whose separate encounters with the FBI spanned from 2007 to 2012, said they refused to spy on Muslim communities as requested by the FBI at least in part because of their religious beliefs.
Their inclusion on the no-fly list meant they could not visit family in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen, sometimes for years. They said they were stigmatized by other community members and lost employment.
Tanvir, for instance, said he had to quit a job as a long-haul trucker requiring him to fly home after completing a route. Algibhah said he could not take a job in Florida because of his travel restrictions.
The government has told the men there is "no reason" why any of the three cannot take flights, indicating that they do not remain on the no-fly list.
A trial judge had thrown out the claims, but the appeals court revived the case, ruling that the law allows individual federal officers to be sued for damages.
In its appeal to the Supreme Court, the Justice Department said that the 2nd Circuit ruling, if allowed to stand, would clear the way for a slew of lawsuits against countless federal employees including national security officials, criminal investigators and correctional officers, which could deter them from performing their duties.
(Reporting by Andrew Chung in New York; Editing by Will Dunham)