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Atheists to Supreme Court: Don’t Open ‘Pandora’s Box’ in Religious Freedom Case

Washington, D.C.—The national civil rights organization American Atheists warned the Supreme Court against a dangerous and unconstitutional expansion of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to include monetary damages in an amicus brief filed this week in the case Tanzin v. Tanvir.

“Using RFRA to give religious believers an advantage in the courts would turn nonreligious Americans into second-class citizens,” said Geoffrey Blackwell, American Atheists’ litigation counsel, who co-authored the brief with Nick Little, vice president and general counsel at the Center for Inquiry (CFI). “Giving religious Americans—and only religious Americans—a special pathway to sue the government for monetary damages is unconstitutional.”

Tanzin v. Tanvir involves three Muslim men who were approached by FBI agents and asked to act as informants. When the men refused to comply, they were allegedly put on the “No Fly” list and suffered losses as a result. 

“While the agents’ conduct in this case is appalling, expanding RFRA to include monetary damages against individual government employees would be opening Pandora’s box,” said Nick Fish, president of American Atheists. “We warned against the unintended consequences of RFRA when it was passed in 1993. If the Court’s recent decisions in cases like Hobby Lobby and Little Sisters of the Poor show us anything, it’s that we need to rein in RFRA, not expand it far beyond what lawmakers ever intended.”

Tanzin v. Tanvir could further expand religious exemptions by threatening federal employees with financial liability. “If burdening religious expression can result in ruinous financial penalties for federal employees, they will be pressured into granting limitless religious exemptions to protect themselves, opening the door to abuse,” said Blackwell.

American Atheists’ brief cites several possible scenarios, including a religious federal employee who refuses to work with lesbian victims of domestic abuse despite explicit non-discrimination protections.

“The law must treat everyone equally—no matter the person’s religion or lack thereof. The Supreme Court must come down on the side of equality, not on the side of increased religious favoritism, oppression, and harm,” added Fish.

The amicus brief was also co-signed by Black Nonbelievers and Ex-Muslims of North America. The full brief can be read here.