In 10-3 ruling, chief judge says Trump's travel ban 'drips with religious intolerance'
In a stinging rebuke to President Donald Trump, a US appeals court refused on Thursday to reinstate his temporary travel ban on people from six Muslim-majority nations, delivering another blow to the White House in a legal battle likely headed to the Supreme Court.
The decision, written by Chief Judge Roger Gregory, described Trump's executive order as using "vague words of national security, but in context drips with religious intolerance, animus, and discrimination".
In a 10-3 ruling, a majority of judges on the 4th Circuit US Court of Appeals said that the challengers to the ban - who included refugee groups and individuals - were likely to succeed on their claim that Trump's order violates the US Constitution's bar on favouring one religion over another.
The court, based in Richmond, Virginia, further said it could not find that the government's security concerns outweighed the plaintiffs' concerns about discrimination.
Citing statements by Trump during his presidential election campaign calling for a "Muslim ban," Gregory wrote that a reasonable observer would likely conclude that the order's "primary purpose is to exclude persons from the United States on the basis of their religious beliefs".
"Congress granted the president broad power to deny entry to aliens, but that power is not absolute," Gregory said.
"It cannot go unchecked when, as here, the president wields it through an executive edict that stands to cause irreparable harm to individuals across this nation."
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The appeals court was reviewing a March ruling by a Maryland-based federal judge who blocked part of Trump's 6 March executive order barring people from Libya, Iran, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen for 90 days while the government put in place stricter visa screening.
A similar ruling against Trump's policy from a Hawaii-based federal judge is still in place and the 9th Circuit US Court of Appeals court is reviewing that decision.
The Trump administration has argued that the temporary travel ban is a national security measure aimed at preventing Islamist militant attacks.
In a 8 May hearing, Acting Solicitor General Jeffrey Wall, representing the government, insisted that Trump "never intended for that to discriminate on the basis of any particular religion".
"He made clear he was not talking about Muslims all over the world," said Wall. "That's why it's not a Muslim ban."
But Omar Jadwat, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union - which represented the associations who were the plaintiffs in the case - argued that Trump the candidate made clear he wanted to ban all Muslims for a time while studying enhanced immigration vetting.
"We won," said both the ACLU and Jadwat on Twitter.
The March ban was Trump's second effort to implement travel restrictions through an executive order.
The first, issued on 27 January just a week after the Republican president took office, led to chaos and protests at airports before it was blocked by courts.
The second order was intended to overcome the legal issues posed by the original ban, but it was blocked by judges before it could go into effect on 16 March.