The headline in Slate was certainly dramatic.
“Donald Trump Declares War on Muslims,” blared the Jan. 25 article by Dahlia Lithwick.
Although somewhat hyperbolic, the headline wasn’t far off the mark. At the time the article appeared, Trump was signaling his intent to issue an executive order suspending immigration from a number of Muslim-majority nations. He also implied that language would be added giving Christian refugees priority over Muslims.
Two days later, Trump made it official. The order, which many people have referred to as a “Muslim ban,” makes good on one of Trump’s campaign promises to reduce Muslim immigration into the United States, lessen overall refugee intake and indefinitely suspend refugees from Syria.
The order also mandates that Muslims seeking to enter the United States be subjected to “extreme vetting,” a process whereby they are grilled on their views on politics and religion in an alleged effort to weed out terrorists. In addition, the order gives state and local governments more say when refugees are relocated.
The action struck many observers as cruel and capricious, and it sparked protests around the nation and the world. Critics noted that in the post-World War II era, the United States has been open to people fleeing political and religious persecution. Trump’s order slammed the door shut and could leave allies, such as moderate Muslims who are fighting the Islamic extremists of ISIS, out in the cold.
Americans United was quick to condemn Trump’s move.
“President Trump just acted to fulfill his promise to ban Muslim refugees and immigrants,” said Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, in a statement to the media. “He has abandoned our nation’s commitment to religious freedom, and he’s turning away those seeking safe harbor and a better life.”
Concluded Lynn, “This action is fundamentally un-American.”
As word circulated about the pending order, activists began speaking out. The Rev. William T. Barber, a North Carolina minister whose protests against the far-right legislature in that state captured national headlines, charged, “These acts smell of racism and reek of xenophobia. They are the antithesis of the Bible, which declares, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) was also critical.
“Christians and churches have been welcoming refugees for 2,000 years, and evangelicals are committed to continue this biblical mission,” said NAE President Leith Anderson. “Thousands of U.S. evangelicals and their churches have welcomed hundreds of thousands of refugees over the past 40 years through World Relief and other federally approved resettlement agencies. We don’t want to stop now.”
By contrast, Religious Right organizations were ecstatic over Trump’s move. The American Family Association (AFA) ran a column by a conservative activist who asserted that Trump was protecting Americans from Islamic law. The group was, however, disappointed that Trump did not go further: It distributed a column calling on him to shut down a program started by President Barack Obama that allows children who were brought to the United States illegally by their parents, and who have lived in the country for years, find a path to citizenship.
Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, practically swooned over the Trump order. In a laudatory column headlined, “Making America Safe Again,” Perkins wrote, “At the start of the weekend, President Trump was busy doing what President Trump does – making things happen.”
Perkins went on to write, “Predictably, the media and liberal politicians went crazy.” He insisted that Trump had not imposed a religious test on immigrants and refugees.
In the real world, things were quite different. The order spawned chaos at airports across the nation. In several cases, people traveling from the nations listed in Trump’s order – Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, Yemen and Iraq – were denied entry into the United States. Some of these people were refugees whose relocation to America had been scheduled for months. Others were holders of green cards, making them temporary legal U.S. residents.
Across the country, spontaneous vigils and demonstrations designed to support immigrants took place at airports. At the same time, hundreds of volunteer attorneys fanned out to offer legal help to those who were trapped in airports.
Among them was Bradley Girard, a legal fellow at Americans United. Girard spent the weekend of Jan. 28-29 at Dulles International Airport in northern Virginia. He later wrote about his experiences for AU’s “Wall of Separation” blog.
“As a litigator at Americans United, I am not surprised to see religious minorities targeted – we come across it regularly. But the sheer scope, transparent purpose, and scattershot nature of the Executive Order issued on Friday was unlike anything I have seen. Luckily, so was the response.”
Added Girard, who has continued to assist immigrants, “During my weekend at Dulles, I felt pride that I work for an organization that fights on the right side of these issues on a daily basis – whether in courts, legislatures or chapters throughout the country. And so long as the Trump Administration keeps pushing an unconstitutional agenda, we’ll continue to be out there fighting.”
Acting on a legal motion filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of several individuals who arrived in the United States after the order was signed, U.S. District Judge Ann M. Donnelly of the Eastern District of New York held that the order likely violated their rights.
Days later, the states of Washington and Minnesota sued over Trump’s order. Richard B. Katskee, Americans United legal director, and legal fellows Girard and Andrew Nellis drafted a legal brief asserting that the Trump order violates the separation of church and state. Katskee, Girard and Nellis also flew to Seattle to help officials there craft a solid church-state argument.
On Feb. 3, U.S. District Judge James L. Robart, an appointee of President George W. Bush, placed Trump’s order on hold nationwide. The ruling led Trump to issue a string of angry tweets, one of which referred to Robart as a “so-called judge.”
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 3-0 Feb. 9 to keep the stay in place. Americans United, joined by the Southern Poverty Law Center, filed another brief before the appellate court raising important church-state issues in the case, State of Washington v. Trump.
Trump, meanwhile, insisted that his order does not amount to a Muslim ban. He was furious when Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, a holdover from the Obama administration who was in the position temporarily, told government agencies not to enforce the order because it was illegal. Trump fired Yates and replaced her with a government attorney who was willing to enforce the order.
But Trump’s claim that the order doesn’t discriminate on the grounds of religion was undercut by his own words. He told a reporter from TV preacher Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network that it would help Christians.
“They’ve been horribly treated,” Trump told David Brody. “Do you know if you were a Christian in Syria it was impossible, at least very tough to get into the United States? If you were a Muslim you could come in, but if you were a Christian, it was almost impossible and the reason that was so unfair, everybody was persecuted in all fairness, but they were chopping off the heads of everybody but more so the Christians. And I thought it was very, very unfair. So we are going to help them.”
In fact, this claim was debunked nearly two years ago. Many Christians from Syria have been allowed into the United States as refugees. It is true that most Syrian refugees are Muslim, but this is to be expected because Syria’s population is 87 percent Muslim and only 10 percent Christian.
Karen Jacobsen, a professor at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy, told the website Politifact in July of 2015 that Trump’s assertion is “completely untrue.”
The Trump order is facing other court challenges, and Americans United is lending its expertise where possible. On Feb. 8, AU’s Legal Department joined another challenge to the Trump order in Virginia.
“Trump’s executive order targets members of a minority religious group for harassment and ill-treatment based on stereotypes and unfounded fears,” said AU’s Lynn. “The order strikes at the heart of religious freedom, and it must not be allowed to stand.”