KANSAS CITY, Kan. (CN) — The American Civil Liberties Union has challenged a Kansas law that prohibits the state from hiring contractors who boycott Israel, calling it a violation of the First Amendment.
The ACLU filed the federal lawsuit Wednesday of behalf of Ester Koontz, a math teacher and trainer who belongs to the Mennonite Church. Koontz is participating in her church’s boycott of Israeli companies to protest Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in the occupied territories.
Koontz, a veteran teacher at a public school in Wichita, refused to sign a form in July declaring that she was not participating in a boycott of Israel. As a result, the state declined to hire her on a statewide education project.
“Kansas’s law, and others like it, violates the Constitution,” ACLU attorney Brian Hauss said in a statement. “The First Amendment prohibits the government from suppressing one side of a public debate. That means it cannot impose ideological litmus tests or loyalty oaths as a condition on hiring or contracting.”
Hauss said the state law, which took effect in July, places illegal restrictions on the state’s employees and contractors.
“Kansas should not be dictating political orthodoxy for its contractors,” Hauss said. “Although the government may impose reasonable restrictions on employee or contractor speech when it relates to their job duties or causes disruption in the workplace, people do not lose the right to participate in politics or speak out on issues of public concern just because they get paid by the state.”
The lead attorneys in the lawsuit are Stephen Douglas Bonney with the ACLU office in Overland Park, and Hauss, with the ACLU office in New York City.
Hauss said the law has nothing to do with job ability or other relevant interests of the state.
“By requiring all state contractors to certify that they are not engaged in a boycott of Israel, Kansas’s law unconstitutionally disqualifies people from working for the state based on protected expression and association that has nothing to do with their jobs,” Hauss said.
During open session this year when the bill was on the floor of the Kansas House, Rep. William Sutton, R-Gardner, said: “It’s in the best interest of Kansas to continue our strong partnership with Israel.
“Israel is a strong trade partner with Kansas, and any company openly boycotting Israel and its products is perpetuating an act of economic warfare against a Kansas trade partner and ally.”
Israel ranks 25th among the foreign countries the state does business with, according to the Kansas Department of Commerce.
Several other states have similar anti-Israel boycott laws on the books. A similar bill was introduced in both houses of Congress this year.