By Lawrence Hurley and Andrew Chung
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Conservative U.S. Supreme Court justices on Wednesday signaled they are likely to uphold President Donald Trump's travel ban on people from several Muslim-majority countries, one of the most contentious policies of his presidency.
Both Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy, a frequent swing vote on the nine-justice court, indicated they were unwilling to second-guess the president on the national security justifications for the policy.
The challengers led by the state of Hawaii have argued the policy was motivated by Trump's enmity toward Muslims and that it violates federal immigration law and the U.S. Constitution's prohibition on the government favoring one religion over another.
But conservative Justice Samuel Alito said during the argument that the text of Trump's proclamation announcing the ban "does not look at all like a Muslim ban."
Referring to statements Trump made during his campaign for president such as calling for "a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States," Trump administration lawyer Noel Francisco said those should be off-limits for courts to scrutinize because he was not the president at the time.
In the first half of the argument, Kennedy did express some skepticism that courts should not review words from candidates from the campaign trail. Kennedy gave the example of a local mayor who makes discriminatory statements and then two days after taking office acts on them.
"You're saying that everything he said is irrelevant?" Kennedy asked Francisco.
The conservative-majority, nine-member court weighed the fate of Trump's travel ban, which is the third version of a policy he first sought to implement a week after taking office in January 2017, and is due to issue a ruling by the end of June.
The policy prohibits entry into the United States of most people from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen. Chad was on the list announced in September, but Trump removed it on April 10.
Until Wednesday, the court had never heard arguments on the legal merits of the travel ban or any other major Trump immigration policy, including his move to rescind protections for young immigrants sometimes called Dreamers brought into the United States illegally as children.
It previously acted on the Republican president's requests to undo lower court orders blocking those two policies, siding with Trump on the travel ban and opposing him on the Dreamers.
Trump's hardline immigration policies have been a key part of his presidency, also including actions taken against states and cities that protect illegal immigrants, intensified deportation efforts and limits on legal immigration.
The Supreme Court on Dec. 4 signaled it may lean toward backing Trump when it granted on a 7-2 vote his administration's request to let the ban go into full effect while legal challenges played out.
Trump has said the travel ban is needed to protect the United States from terrorism by Islamic militants. U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions in a statement on Wednesday cited the president's "broad discretion and authority to protect the United States from all foreign and domestic threats."
About 150 people demonstrated against the travel ban outside the courthouse on a rainy morning in the U.S. capital. Seema Sked, 39, stood before the court's plaza with a homemade sign that read, "Proud American Muslim."
"The Muslim ban offends freedom of religion, which is a protected right," said Sked, who immigrated with her parents from Pakistan when she was a toddler and now lives in Virginia. "It hurts me because it is singling out and demeaning Muslims because of their faith."
Venezuela and North Korea also were targeted in the travel ban. Those restrictions were not challenged in court.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley and Andrew Chung; Additional reporting by Mica Rosenberg and Susan Heavey; Editing by Will Dunham)