NEW YORK — Claims by three Muslim men that their religious rights were violated and they suffered harm when they were put on a nationwide "No-Fly List" after refusing to become FBI informants were reinstated Wednesday by an appeals court.
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan said the 2013 lawsuit against two dozen FBI agents was improperly tossed out by a lower court judge.
In a release from the Center for Constitutional Rights, plaintiff Naveed Shinwari said he was "gratified that the court has recognized my right to be free from religious discrimination."
He added: "By putting me on the no-fly list, these federal agents punished me for refusing to spy on my own community and caused me and my family great pain."
The lawsuit brought by four Muslim men in New York and Connecticut had sought unspecified damages after they were put on the list for individuals deemed a threat to airline safety. One of the men did not join the appeal.
The appeals panel said the Religious Freedom Restoration Act permits individuals to recover money damages against federal officers sued in their individual capacities for violating sincerely held religious beliefs. It said the lower court judge can decide whether the government employees are protected by immunity.
In an opinion written by Circuit Judge Rosemary Pooler, the 2nd Circuit noted that the inability to fly caused the plaintiffs emotional distress, reputational harm and economic loss. It said one plaintiff had to quit a job as a long-haul trucker because he could no longer fly home while another was unable to visit his ailing mother in Pakistan and a third was unable to see his wife or daughter in Yemen for many years.
Government lawyers had no immediate comment.
Lawyers for the men said federal agents told them they could avoid being placed on the No-Fly List if they agreed to work as informants. An agent asked one to visit online Islamic forums and "act extremist" while another was asked to travel to Pakistan as an informant, the lawyers said.
Attorney Shayana Kadidal said getting their clients removed from the No-Fly List was "an important accomplishment, but it is not enough to ensure that the FBI does not retaliate against others for refusing to become informants."
Lawyers said that the lawsuit, among others, had helped to reveal that the government had long operated the No-Fly List in near-total secrecy without telling individuals why they were put on the list or giving them a meaningful chance to dispute it. They contended that the list grew from 3,400 individuals in 2009 to over 21,000 people by February 2012.
In 2015, the government issued a policy letting Americans who were prevented from flying on commercial fights to petition the U.S. Transportation Security Administration to learn if they are on the list and seek an explanation about why.