The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit recently ruled that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, 42 U.S.C. §2000bb et seq. (RFRA), provides a claim for money damages against government officials acting in their individual capacities and that those officials may raise qualified immunity as a defense. Ajaj v. Fed. Bureau of Prisons, — F.4th —, 2022 U.S. App. LEXIS 3584 (10th Cir. Feb. 9, 2022). The circuit court followed the Supreme Court’s decision in Tanzin v. Tanvir, 141 S. Ct. 486 (2020), which confirmed that damages claims are permissible under RFRA, and expanded on Tanzin by allowing individual defendants to raise qualified immunity.

The Underlying RFRA Claims

Ahmad Ajaj, a practicing Muslim, is currently serving a 114-year sentence for terrorist acts related to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Ajaj, 2022 U.S. App. LEXIS 3584, at *1. He sued the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) for injunctive relief and certain BOP officials for money damages on several grounds, including violations of his rights to free exercise of religion under RFRA. Id. at *1-2. Specifically, he alleged the following RFRA violations: (1) failure to accommodate religious fasts during Ramadan; (2) failure to provide a halal diet; (3) failure to provide access to an imam, an Islamic religious leader; and (4) failure to accommodate group prayer five times daily. Id. at *4.