Ahmed Shqeirat et al. vs. U.S. Airways, Minnesota, 2007

Image: Ahmed Shqeirat et al. vs. U.S. Airways, Minnesota, 2007

“The case of the flying imams” came about when six Muslim leaders were taken off a US Airways flight in 2006 after witnesses reported that they engaged in suspicious behavior that included requesting unnecessary seatbelt extensions, spacing themselves evenly throughout the plane, and cursing the United States. When a New York attorney affiliated with the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) filed a lawsuit on behalf of the imams, they targeted the airline, Minnesota’s Metropolitan Airports Commission (a government agency), and—significantly—several “John Doe” citizens who had reported the imams’ suspicious behavior.

The Becket Fund got involved on behalf of the “John Does,” offering to represent them free of charge, and publishing an open letter to the Executive Director of CAIR, denouncing the targeting of private citizens as far outside the scope of legitimate civil rights test cases. While the Becket Fund represents people of all faiths, including Muslims, this was the first time we had ever opposed someone’s claim of religious discrimination. However in this case, the government had a compelling interest in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks to investigate suspicious behavior on an airplane and to protect the private citizens who alerted the authorities from legal harassment. Ultimately this case was about the proper contours of civil rights and religious freedom cases, and the Becket Fund saw an important opportunity to make clear that religious freedom claims are not without important limitations that include the safety of others.

The case went forward and drew national attention, but as a result of our public pressure and the brief we filed, CAIR dropped the “John Does” from the lawsuit, and Congress passed a law that protects private citizens who report suspicious activity from similar lawsuits.