Thursday, December 10, 2020
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA) prohibits the Federal Government from imposing substantial burdens on religious exercise, absent a compelling interest pursued through the least restrictive means. 107 Stat. 1488, 42 U. S. C. §2000bb et seq. It also gives a person whose religious exercise has been unlawfully burdened the right to seek “appropriate relief.” The question here is whether “appropriate relief” includes claims for money damages against Government officials in their individual capacities. We hold that it does.
First, the Court finds that government officials can be sued in their personal capacities. Justice Thomas explains: “A suit against an official in his personal capacity is a suit against a person acting under color of law. And a suit against a person acting under color of law is a suit against ‘a government,’ as defined under RFRA. §2000bb–1(c).”
Second, the Court approves of claims for monetary damages against such officials: “A damages remedy is not just ‘appropriate’ relief as viewed through the lens of suits against Government employees. It is also the only form of relief that can remedy some RFRA violations.” In a footnote, however, Justice Thomas raises the possibility of qualified immunity:
Both the Government and respondents agree that government officials are entitled to assert a qualified immunity defense when sued in their individual capacities for money damages under RFRA. Indeed, respondents emphasize that the “qualified immunity defense was created for precisely these circumstances,” Brief for Respondents 22, and is a “powerful shield” that “protects all but the plainly incompetent or those who flout clearly established law,” Tr. of Oral Arg. 42; see District of Columbia v. Wesby, 583 U. S. ___, ___–___ (2018) (slip op., at 13–15).