The American Civil Liberties Union won an early victory Jan. 30 in its federal lawsuit arguing that a Kansas law requiring Esther Koontz, a public school educator, to certify that she won’t boycott Israel violates her First Amendment rights, according to aclu.org/news.
Koontz, a member of First Mennonite Church, Hutchinson, Kansas, is a math and science coach for teachers in the Wichita (Kansas) public school system and was chosen to participate in a statewide program to train other math teachers. In July, she says she received a note from the Kansas State Department of Education informing her that in order to participate in the training program, she would need to sign a document stating that she does not boycott Israel. When she refused to sign the statement as a matter of conscience, she was informed that she could not participate in program.
A federal judge issued a preliminary injunction blocking enforcement of the law while the case filed in October proceeds. It is the first ruling addressing a recent wave of laws nationwide aiming to punish people who boycott Israel.
The law, which took effect on July 1, requires that any person or company that contracts with the state submit a written certification that they are “not currently engaged in a boycott of Israel.” The ACLU is also currently fighting a case filed in December against a similar law in Arizona.
In a Feb. 2 email, Koontz said she understood the injunction to be a positive development. “The final ruling may come months or years from now,” she wrote, “but for now, this is very good news.” She said she still has her full-time job as a teacher coach in the Wichita school district, since that job was not affected by the lawsuit. “Because of the no boycott law,” she wrote, “I was not able to work for the state as a teacher trainer, but now that the law is deemed unconstitutional in this preliminary injunction, I can take up doing trainings with the state again.”
According to an Oct. 12, 2017, story by The Mennonite, Koontz stated that her concerns about the Israel-Palestine region first developed while serving a three-year term with Mennonite Central Committee in Egypt, and intensified in fall 2016, when First Mennonite hosted a presentation by a congregation member who shared about his trip to Israel and Israeli treatment of Palestinians.
Koontz also cited the “Seeking Peace in Israel-Palestine” resolution passed by Mennonite Church USA delegates last July as having an influence on her decision to boycott. The resolution states, “While the resolution does not call for a boycott of all Israeli goods or for academic or cultural boycotts, it urges Mennonites to avoid purchases and investments directly related to the military occupation of Palestinian territories.”
“The court has rightly recognized the serious First Amendment harms being inflicted by this misguided law, which imposes an unconstitutional ideological litmus test,” said ACLU attorney Brian Hauss, who argued the issue in court. “This ruling should serve as a warning to government officials around the country that the First Amendment prohibits the government from suppressing participation in political boycotts.”
In his opinion, U.S. District Judge Daniel Crabtree wrote, “[T]he Supreme Court has held that the First Amendment protects the right to participate in a boycott like the one punished by the Kansas law.”
Other Supreme Court decisions have established that the government may not require individuals to sign a certification regarding their political expression in order to obtain employment, contracts, or other benefits.
Judge Crabtree wrote in his opinion, “[Koontz] and others participating in this boycott of Israel seek to amplify their voices to influence change.”
The lawsuit argues that the Kansas law violates the First Amendment for several reasons: It compels speech regarding protected political beliefs, associations and expression; restricts the political expression and association of government contractors and discriminates against protected expression based on its content and viewpoint. The lawsuit asks the court to strike down the law and bar the Kansas Department of Education from requiring contractors to certify that they are not participating in boycotts of Israel.
Koontz wrote in her email that she has “received a lot of support from across the Mennonite church and beyond, which has been very heartening.”