Leah Millis / Reuters
A federal appeals court on Thursday ruled that President Donald Trump's third attempt at a travel ban is likely unconstitutional, writing that it “continues to exhibit a primarily religious anti-Muslim objective.”
The US Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit upheld a lower court injunction that blocked the Trump administration from enforcing key parts of the travel ban, but put its order on hold while the US Supreme Court takes up the issue of the ban.
The president's third travel ban is already before the Supreme Court, after the 9th Circuit ruled in December that it violated federal law. The 9th Circuit did not rule on the issue addressed by the 4th Circuit — whether the ban amounts to religious discrimination in violation of the US Constitution's Establishment Clause — but the justices asked for briefing on the constitutional question as well.
The 4th Circuit sided in favor of the groups challenging the ban in a 9–4 decision. Chief Judge Roger Gregory wrote in the majority opinion that the government's “proffered rationale for the Proclamation lies at odds with the statements of the President himself.”
“Plaintiffs here do not just plausibly allege with particularity that the Proclamation’s purpose is driven by anti-Muslim bias, they offer undisputed evidence of such bias: the words of the President,” Gregory wrote.
Gregory cited Trump's “disparaging comments and tweets regarding Muslims,” the president's repeated references to a Muslim ban, the fact that Trump's previous travel bans were focused on majority-Muslim countries, and statements by Trump and his advisers that the latest order has the same goals as the previous ones.
Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said in a statement that, “Nothing is more important to the President and the Attorney General than the safety and security of all Americans. The President’s lawful order remains critical to accomplishing that goal. The Fourth Circuit’s decision does not alter the status quo, and we look forward to ultimate resolution of these issues by the Supreme Court.”
Cecillia Wang, deputy legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, who argued the case for the travel ban challengers in the 4th Circuit, said in a statement, that, “President Trump’s third illegal attempt to denigrate and discriminate against Muslims through an immigration ban has failed in court yet again. It’s no surprise. The Constitution prohibits government actions hostile to a religion.”
After federal courts struck down the president's first two attempts at a travel ban, Trump on Sept. 24 signed the latest set of travel restrictions. It in large part suspended travel to the US by nationals of five majority-Muslim countries covered under the previous travel bans — Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen — as well as two new countries, Chad and North Korea. The presidential proclamation also placed travel restrictions on certain government officials in Venezuela and their family members.
In October, federal judges in Hawaii and Maryland issued injunctions blocking enforcement of the ban, which the Trump administration appealed. The Supreme Court issued an order on Dec. 4 allowing the ban to go fully into effect while the appeals in the 9th Circuit and the 4th Circuit went forward. The justices wrote at the time that it expected that the appeals courts would rule “with appropriate dispatch.”
The 9th Circuit, which heard arguments on Dec. 6, issued its opinion on Dec. 20. But the 4th Circuit, which heard arguments two days later, did not rule until Thursday.
Gregory wrote in the main opinion that even if the proclamation was “facially legitimate” — that the text on its face didn't run afoul of the constitution — it failed the test of whether the government had a “bona fide” reason for adopting it. The administration argued that the proclamation was rooted in national security concerns, but Gregory wrote that Trump's statements undermined that.
Gregory said that even setting aside Trump's statements during the campaign calling for a Muslim ban, the president had continued to make statements that “convey the primary purpose of the Proclamation—to exclude Muslims from the United States.” He quoted Trump's tweets supporting his original travel ban executive order, which multiple courts determined was likely unconstitutional, as well as a tweet expressing support for an unverified story about a general who killed Muslims using bullets dipped in pig's blood and his retweets of anti-Muslim videos.
“Plaintiffs offer undisputed evidence that the President of the United States has openly and often expressed his desire to ban those of Islamic faith from entering the United States. The Proclamation is thus not only a likely Establishment Clause violation, but also strikes at the basic notion that the government may not act based on 'religious animosity,'” Gregory wrote.
The court upheld US District Judge Theodore Chuang's preliminary injunction, which blocked enforcement of the proclamation's travel restrictions with respect to nationals of Chad, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen who have a “credible claim of a bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States.”
This is a developing story. Check back for updates.