The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday on behalf of a Mennonite Church member to challenge a Kansas law mandating companies and individuals entering into contracts with the state pledge in writing not to boycott Israel.
The anti-boycott statute signed into law by Gov. Sam Brownback took effect July 1. Constitutional questions raised during the 2017 Legislature’s debate of House Bill 2409 were basis of the suit naming Randy Watson, the state’s education commissioner, as defendant.
“The First Amendment prohibits the government from using its financial leverage to impose an ideological litmus test,” said Brian Hauss, an attorney with the ACLU. “This law is an unconstitutional attempt by the government to silence one side of a public debate by coercing people not to express their beliefs, including through participation in a political boycott.”
The ACLU’s client is Ester Koontz, who belongs to the Mennonite Church USA in Hutchinson. She participates in a boycott of consumer products made by companies operating in Israeli settlements within occupied Palestinian territories.
Koontz works as a curriculum coach at Horace Mann Dual Language Magnet School, a public school in Wichita, and is qualified to train teachers statewide as a contractor with the Kansas Department of Education. In July, legal counsel at state board requested she sign a form declaring she wasn’t a participant in a boycott involving Israel.
She declined to sign the certification in August. In response, the state of Kansas refused to contract with her on a math and science education project.
“You don’t need to share my beliefs or agree with my decisions to understand that this law violates my free speech rights. The state should not be telling people what causes they can or can’t support,” Koontz said.
Supporters of the law argued the Kansas law wouldn’t prohibit free speech because individuals and companies could still criticize Israel or engage in a boycott as long it didn’t involve business with the state of Kansas. The state shouldn’t “subsidize or reward discriminatory behavior,” said Jacob Millner, Midwest regional director and senior policy analyst for the Israel Project.
Rep. William Sutton, a Republican from Gardner who supported the bill, said during the 2017 session the boycott of Israel amounted to an “act of economic warfare against America’s closest ally in the Middle East.”