Today, the United States Supreme Court decided an important religious liberty case–Tanzin v. Tanzir–involving who can be sued for money damages under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”). The unanimous decision authored by Justice Clarence Thomas affirmed that government officials may be sued for money damages in their individual or personal capacities under RFRA. While the government argued that RFRA should not be interpreted in a way that would expose a government official’s personal assets to judgment, the Supreme Court held that RFRA’s text is clear and that Congress, not the Court, is responsible for addressing the policy concerns related to the personal liability of government employees.
In its decision, the Supreme Court also referenced RFRA’s sister statute, the Religious Land Use & Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”). Both statutes contain a “substantial burden” provision which prohibits the government and government employees from imposing substantial burdens on religious exercise. Both statutes also contain a provision which allows religious claimants to seek “appropriate relief” against the government and government employees who imposed the burden. Since RLUIPA contains the same operative provisions, government officials who impose land use regulations in a manner which substantially burden the religious exercise of a religious institution or assembly may be individually or personally liable for money damages in some cases.
Hopefully, the prospect of facing personal liability for their actions will cause more government officials to be less inclined to burden the religious exercise of the citizens and institutions they are called to serve. We look forward to continuing to help religious assemblies and institutions across the country keep government officials accountable.
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