President Donald Trump’s temporary ban on travelers from six Muslim-majority countries faces a key legal test on Monday before a U.S. appeals court in Virginia, as his administration aims to convince a federal appeals court that the action was motivated by national security concerns not religious bias.
The Richmond-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals was set to hear an hour of arguments in the administration’s appeal of a March 15 ruling by Maryland-based federal judge Theodore Chuang putting the travel ban on hold a day before it was due to go into effect.
The Republican president’s travel ban also was blocked by federal judge Derrick Watson in Hawaii in a separate legal challenge. An earlier version of the ban was also blocked by the courts.
Protesters critical of the travel ban gathered outside the courthouse under sunny skies, holding signs saying “Immigrants and refugees enrich America” and “No ban, no wall, no white supremacy.”
“You can’t be told you can’t come into the country because of your religious beliefs,” said protester Jennifer Larson from Norfolk, Virginia. “No culture, or class or religion should be discriminated against.”
Chuang blocked part of Trump’s March 6 executive order that prohibited new visas to enter the United States for citizens of Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen for three months. Watson in Hawaii also blocked another part of the order that suspended the entry of all refugees into the United States for four months.
Chuang’s ruling came in a lawsuit challenging the revised travel ban brought by refugee organizations and individuals who said they would be harmed by the policy. The challengers said Trump’s order violated federal immigration law and a section of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment barring the government from favoring or disfavoring a particular religion.
Acting U.S. Solicitor General Jeffrey Wall, arguing on behalf of Trump, was given the task of persuading an appeals court dominated by judges appointed by Democratic presidents that the travel ban was motivated not by unconstitutional religious bias but by national security concerns.
Chuang wrote in his ruling that Trump’s own past comments such as calling for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” provided a convincing case that the motivation for the order was putting in place the president’s “long-envisioned Muslim ban.”
Trump’s Justice Department contends the motivation for the travel ban was to protect the United States from terrorism. Administration lawyers said courts should not base their rulings on Trump’s comments during the 2016 election campaign because those statements were made before he became president.
Regardless of what the 13 judges of the 4th Circuit rule, the matter is likely to be decided ultimately by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Trump issued the March executive order after federal courts blocked an earlier version, issued on Jan. 27 a week after he took office, that also had included Iraq among the nations targeted. That order, which went into effect immediately, triggered chaos and protests at airports and in several cities before being put on hold due to legal challenges.
The second order was intended to overcome the legal problems posed by the original ban.
The administration’s appeal in the Hawaii case will be heard in Seattle on May 15 by a three-judge panel of the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The three judges assigned all are Democratic appointees.