TOPEKA, Kan. — Kansas legislators are trying to salvage a law prohibiting state contractors from boycotting Israel after a federal judge blocked its enforcement, advancing a bill Monday to narrow the ban so it no longer would apply to individuals or small contracts.
The state House approved the measure, 93-30 , sending it to the Senate. Enacting the bill’s changes would resolve the federal lawsuit that led to it being put on hold, according to an attorney involved, but lawmakers in both parties said they believe the narrower law still would violate free-speech rights.
Two-dozen states have anti-boycott policies, from liberal California to conservative strongholds such as Alabama and Texas, as a movement protesting Israel’s policies toward Palestinians has grown increasingly visible. The Kansas law had bipartisan support and took effect in July, and the new legislation says Israel has a “dynamic” business culture and is a “prominent” trade partner for Kansas.
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit in October on behalf of Esther Koontz, a math and science curriculum coordinator in the Wichita public schools. She was denied a state teacher-training contract after refusing to sign a statement that she wasn’t participating in a boycott of Israel or Israeli products.
In January, U.S. District Judge Daniel Crabtree blocked the state from enforcing the ban while the lawsuit proceeds and ruled it “highly likely” that the Kansas law is invalid. Doug Bonney, an ACLU attorney, said if the bill passes, the state law’s restrictions would no longer apply to Koontz.
“We would have achieved all of the relief that we could for our client,” Bonney said. As for the law, he said, “It still seems liked it would still be unconstitutional.”
Though Kansas has in the past prohibited investments by its public pension system in South Africa or Sudan, it does not prohibit contractors from participating in boycotts against nations other than Israel.
The 2017 law prohibits the state from contracting with sole proprietorships, companies, partnerships or for-profit associations participating in boycotts of Israel. The ACLU lawsuit said Koontz is a Mennonite who decided to boycott Israeli products and services to “support the Palestinians’ struggle for equality.”
Under the bill, the anti-boycott law would no longer apply to sole proprietors like Koontz or contracts of $100,000 or less. It also would apply only to boycotts of goods and services that are “an integral part” of trade or potential trade between Kansas and Israel.
In voting for the bill, conservative Republican Rep. Trevor Jacobs, of Fort Scott, quoted a verse from the Bible’s Book of Genesis, where God tells the future patriarch Abraham, “I will bless those who bless you and whoever curses you, I will curse.”
“I choose this day to bless and stand with the nation of Israel,” Jacobs said.
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