HOUSTON — A civil rights group on Friday called unconstitutional a Houston suburb’s hurricane repair grant program that says residents cannot boycott Israel as a condition of receiving any money.
The American Civil Liberties Union said it’s considering legal action against the city of Dickinson over its Hurricane Harvey repair grant program, which will provide money to people whose homes and businesses in the city were damaged.
The grant program’s application has a section in which individuals have to acknowledge they “will not boycott Israel during the term of this agreement.”
“The Supreme Court has made very clear that participation in political boycotts is fully protected by the First Amendment,” said ACLU staff attorney Brian Hauss.
The boycott language was included to comply with a new state law prohibiting Texas agencies from contracting with companies boycotting Israel, said David Olson, the city attorney in Dickinson, located about 30 miles southeast of Houston.
The law, which took effect Sept. 1, prohibits all state agencies from contracting with, and some public funds from investing in, companies that boycott Israel.
Olson said it’s unclear if the new law applies to the city’s grant program, funded by more than $1 million in private donations for victims. The confusion exists because once the city took control of the money, it became public funds and Dickinson had to create a grant program to distribute them, he said. The city classifies individuals receiving the grants as independent contractors.
“We’re just trying to do what’s right, comply with state law and make sure the residents get every benefit that we can lawfully give them,” Olson said.
Dickinson was one of the areas hardest hit by Harvey’s torrential rainfall in late August. More than 7,300 homes in the city were damaged, displacing about 7,900 residents.
Dickinson is waiting to hear back from state officials on whether the law applies to the city’s grant program and if it doesn’t, “then there’s no reason for us to have it in the agreement,” Olson said.
“The city does not take a political stance on the (boycott) itself. They are not for or against it,” he said.
Hauss said the main issue in this case is the state law and the ACLU’s belief that the law is “fundamentally unconstitutional.”
Twenty-one states, including Texas, have passed laws that prohibit them from entering into contracts with individuals or companies participating in a boycott of Israel. Earlier this month, the ACLU filed a federal lawsuit in Kansas on behalf of a teacher challenging that state’s boycott law.
“The state cannot condition government benefits, ranging from disaster relief to just access to government contracts, on the forfeiture of … First Amendment rights,” Hauss said.
Olson said Dickinson officials hope to have heard back from the state by next Tuesday’s city council meeting so a decision can be made on whether to change the grant program’s no boycott requirement.
Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter at www.twitter.com/juanlozano70
Some references in this story have been corrected to show that the last name of the ACLU staff attorney is Hauss, not Strauss.