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Catholics, Jews and other faith groups oppose the Trump administration in travel ban case
Muslim, Jewish and Christian leaders are calling on the Supreme Court to strike down President Donald Trump's travel ban - photo by Kelsey Dallas
Muslim, Jewish and Christian leaders are calling on the Supreme Court to strike down President Donald Trump's travel ban, arguing that it threatens America's status as a global humanitarian leader and defender of religious freedom.

"Each of those are core values, and they're truly at risk. I think that's why you see the Jewish community, the faith community and others speaking up on this issue so forcefully," said Barbara Weinstein, the associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Seven of the more than 50 amicus, or friend-of-the-court, briefs filed on March 30 against the Trump administration in Trump v. Hawaii are faith-related, drawing on religious history and teachings to discount claims made by federal officials.

"The Muslim ban, in all of its iterations, is nothing more than religious intolerance masquerading as an attempt to address (unfounded) security concerns," explains the brief filed by the Muslim Justice League and other Muslim rights groups.

The Trump administration argues that the eight countries affected by the current ban were selected after a careful review of how security information is shared between countries, not because of their religious makeup. The president has broad authority to adjust immigration regulations, they say.

Faith groups that have suffered religious persecution in the past hope Supreme Court justices will have their community's pain in mind as they considered the fate of Muslim travelers.

Having once borne the brunt of severe discriminatory treatment, particularly in the immigration context, the Catholic Church will not sit silent while others suffer on account of their religion," reads the brief signed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Catholic Charities USA and Catholic Legal Immigration Network, Inc.

Many people of faith feel that an attack on any religion is an attack on all religions, said Melissa Rogers, a nonresident senior scholar with the Brookings Institution who coordinated faith-based partnerships for the Obama administration.

"I think religious groups who have filed briefs in opposition to the Trump administration proclamation feel very strongly about the command of equal religious liberty for all," she said.

Case overview

Trump spoke repeatedly about the threat of Muslim immigrants while on the campaign trail, promising to tighten travel regulations once elected in order to keep terrorists out of the country.

For example, in December 2015, he called for "a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on." The statement was posted to his campaign website, but has since been taken down.

One week after his inauguration, Trump issued his first executive order on travel, which banned entry into the U.S. by citizens from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen for 90 days, according to CNN. It sparked protests and demonstrations and, within days, was blocked by multiple federal judges.

Just over a month later, Trump responded with a new travel ban, removing Iraq from the list of affected countries. Again, his administration faced multiple lawsuits.

The Supreme Court case, Trump v. Hawaii, centers on the third iteration of the travel ban: a presidential proclamation released on Sept. 24, 2017. It blocks various forms of travel from six Muslim-majority countries Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Yemen and Chad and two additional countries, North Korea and Venezuela.

Trump administration officials say the countries were selected due to difficulty communicating with their leaders about potential terrorist threats. The countries either don't provide information related to terrorism or "haven't taken necessary security precautions," USA Today reported.

However, critics say that Trump's goal has always been to keep Muslim travelers out of the U.S. and propagate harmful stereotypes.

"Any reasonable observer who heard the president's campaign promises, read his thinly justified orders banning overwhelmingly Muslim populations and observed his administration's persistent statements linking the two would view the (travel bans) as the fulfillment of the president's promise to prohibit Muslim immigration to the United States," wrote attorneys for the state of Hawaii and other respondents in the Supreme Court case in their brief.

The Trump administration lost in the 9th Circuit and 4th Circuit appellate courts, which both ruled that the proclamation overstepped Trump's presidential authority. Attorneys for the federal government appealed to the Supreme Court, asserting that the president has "broad authority" to ban travelers in the interest of national security.

Travel restrictions "were adopted following (a) comprehensive review process, during which multiple agencies assessed over 200 countries by applying national-security criteria that have nothing to do with religion," they claim.

Fewer than 15 amicus briefs have been filed in support of the administration's arguments.

The Supreme Court will consider the scope of presidential authority, as well as whether the executive order violated immigration law by discriminating against immigrants on the basis of nationality or the Constitution's establishment clause by disfavoring a particular religion.

Religious and American values

The faith groups opposing the Trump administration in the Supreme Court case draw on religious and secular principles to make their arguments. They cite religious texts, as well as the Constitution.

"Our (country's) founders were clear that the nation's new laws prohibiting religious discrimination extended to people of all faiths and backgrounds," argued a brief from the Anti-Defamation League, Union for Reform Judaism and four other Jewish organizations.

But the faith-related briefs don't try to convince justices to view immigration issues through a religious lens, said Weinstein, who also serves as director of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism. Instead, they emphasize the dignity of all people.

"America is at its best when it's living up to its history as a nation of immigrants," she said.

The briefs explore past instances of religious intolerance, which many faith groups have lived through. Catholics were once barred from holding public office. Jewish refugees on a ship called the St. Louis were turned away from America's shores during the Holocaust.

"We recognize that the story of Catholics in America is much like the story of other religious minorities," said Bradley Jenkins, an attorney for Catholic Legal Immigration Network Inc. "Religious liberty has been threatened and discrimination by powerful authorities has been far too prevalent."

A group of scholars who specialize in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints offered similar sentiments in their brief, which doesn't take sides in the case.

"The Mormon historical experience underscores the need for rigorous judicial scrutiny of allegedly discriminatory government action, and for careful consideration of the purposes behind even facially neutral orders," the scholars wrote, noting that the U.S. government once dissolved the LDS Church as a legal entity.

Trump v. Hawaii is also being followed closely by law firms that specialize in religious liberty-related cases, such as The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

Some conscience-rights advocates worry that a ruling based on the establishment clause, which prohibits the government from establishing a national religion or singling out one faith group for favor or disfavor, could be overly broad. They argue that the Supreme Court should instead consider whether the travel ban tramples on Muslims' right to free exercise of their faith.

"With free exercise cases, you look at what religious practice someone wants to engage in and what the government is doing to prevent that," said Eric Rassbach, who serves as a vice president and senior counsel for Becket. "You're focused on a religious person with a problem as opposed to trying to figure out" the president's motivations using his tweets and campaign-trail promises.

Becket has filed a motion for leave to participate in oral arguments to share these concerns. The Trump administration and attorneys for the state of Hawaii now have a chance to respond to the briefs.

Oral arguments in this case will take place on April 25.
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