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Faith leaders say Trump’s anti-Muslim tweets violate constitutional protections

Thousands gathered in Lafayette Square in February to protest the first version of the Trump administration’s travel ban on citizens of certain Muslim-majority countries. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

President Trump’s recent tweets featuring inflammatory anti-Muslim videos have figured prominently in legal challenges to the administration’s latest travel ban on certain citizens of eight countries.

The president’s sharing of the three videos posted by a far-right British activist also raised concerns this week from a coalition of faith-based organizations that say Trump’s retweets went too far and violated constitutional protections. The faith leaders and legal advocates asserted in a letter to the White House on Thursday that the president’s messages are at odds with the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment that prevents the government from denigrating a particular religion or showing hostility toward a single faith.

“These tweets sought to draw attention to the misdeeds of Muslims, simply on account of their being Muslim,” according to the letter, signed by Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Sikh organizations and drafted by Georgetown Law’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection.

“Your decision to retweet these messages carried a dark and unmistakable message: Muslims are to be feared; Islamic practices pose a danger to society; Muslims can never be truly equal citizens under the law,” according to the letter sent to Trump and the White House counsel’s office.

In federal court last week, the administration’s lawyer affirmed the government’s view that messages from the president’s Twitter account — @realDonaldTrump — are official statements of the president. Even so, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Hashim M. Mooppan told the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit that the recent retweets of the videos were legally irrelevant to challenges to the president’s travel order that now applies to six Muslim-majority countries and to North Korea and Venezuela.

Federal judges have blocked earlier versions of the travel order as an unconstitutional ban on Muslims in part because of the president’s statements on Twitter.

With its letter to the president Thursday, the coalition of religious organizations is not threatening legal action, but rather pressing Trump to consider constitutional boundaries before taking to Twitter.

“In the future, we urge the president to refrain from using his official perch to share divisive messages that denigrate the religion of any American,” said Joshua Geltzer, the institute’s executive director and a former high-ranking national security official at the Justice Department during the Obama administration.

The chair of the institute is Neal Katyal, a Georgetown professor who is leading one of the challenges to the travel order at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

White House officials have not directly addressed whether the president should share content whose authenticity was not verified. The authenticity of the videos in the original post that Trump shared has not been verified. The videos included captions: “Muslim migrant beats up Dutch boy on crutches!,” “Muslim destroys a statue of Virgin Mary!” and “Islamist mob pushes teenage boy off roof and beats him to death!”

White house press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders has defended the retweets as evidence that Trump wants to “promote strong borders and strong national security.”

A White House spokesman did not immediately respond Thursday to a request for comment on the letter.

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