In what will likely be a landmark court decision concerning religious freedoms in the United States, the U.S. Supreme Court said today it will hear the case of Fazaga v. FBI, concerning the government’s secret surveillance of people on the basis of their religious beliefs and practices. The case stems from an FBI operation in 2006 and 2007 in which agents sent a paid informant to some of the largest, most diverse mosques in Orange County, California to pose as a convert to Islam.
The informant indiscriminately gathered names, telephone numbers and e-mails, as well as information on the religious and political beliefs of hundreds of individuals who were simply exercising their Constitutional right to religious freedom. Ironically, congregants became increasingly concerned about the informant’s behavior, ultimately reporting him to the FBI.
The case drew national public attention as the subject of a “This American Life” episode on National Public Radio.
After the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, the Council for American Islamic Relations and the law firm of Hadsell Stormer Renick & Dai filed suit on behalf of a religious leader and two congregants, a district court in the OC held that it could not even hear claims that the FBI might have unlawfully targeted Muslims for surveillance because the FBI had labeled its own investigation a “state secret.”
The court of appeals disagreed, instructing the district court to consider the plaintiffs' religious discrimination and surveillance claims under procedures mandated by Congress in the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which specify how courts should handle sensitive evidence in national security matters.
“We look forward to defending before the Supreme Court the right of all Americans to have their claims of religious discrimination heard by the courts,” said Ahilan Arulanantham, former legal director of the ACLU SoCal and now a law professor at UCLA School of Law.
“While the Supreme Court has decided to review this case on a fairly narrow legal issue, we do not want to forget what this case is ultimately about and why it was important that this case was filed more than ten years ago,” said Hussam Ayloush, executive director of CAIR-LA. “The FBI infiltrated several mosques in Southern California, planted informants, and targeted Muslim Americans for illegal spying solely because of their religion. The FBI’s actions were a clear violation of our Constitution and revealed that the FBI viewed, and continues to view, the American Muslim community as second-class citizens who are suspects until proven innocent.”
“Our system of checks and balances requires that courts be open to hearing claims that the government has violated the constitution,” said Mohammad Tajsar, senior staff attorney with the ACLU SoCal. “The government shouldn’t be able to avoid accountability for unconstitutionally targeting U.S. citizens and permanent residents for surveillance in their homes here in the U.S. because of their religion, simply because they say the violations were part of a counterterrorism investigation.”