The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Federal Prison Officials, and the Doctrinal Dinosaur of Qualified Immunity
In 2020, the United States Supreme Court held that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) allows for claims for money damages against federal officials who substantially burden a person’s free exercise rights. As federal courts now grapple with these claims for damages, federal prison officials defending RFRA claims have turned to a trusty and time-honored defense: qualified immunity. In recent years, however, qualified immunity has come under increasing attack from judicial, scholarly, and popular sources, and the rationale underlying qualified immunity doctrine cannot withstand the kind of textual analysis that the Supreme Court used when announcing that the RFRA statute allowed for damages. Using the Supreme Court’s rationale, the text and doctrine of RFRA, and the long-articulated criticisms of qualified immunity, this Article argues that qualified immunity should not be an available defense to statutory claims asserted against federal prison officials.
In formulating this argument, the Article makes three primary contributions. First, it explains the importance of RFRA and its attendant religious rights protections to the more than 150,000 people confined by the federal government in the nation’s prisons. Second, it demonstrates how the defense of qualified immunity is incongruent to the statute’s text, history, and purpose. And, finally, it is the first article to analyze how the qualified immunity defense becomes unworkable when it is applied to the doctrine governing claims brought under the statute. Overall, by focusing on the narrow class of RFRA claims, the Article joins the chorus of commentators urging the federal courts to reconsider the knee-jerk application of qualified immunity to claims involving fundamental rights.