If you’re a resident of a small Texas city and in need of hurricane recovery funds, you’ll have to certify that you’re not boycotting Israel.
Dickinson, Texas, announced earlier this week that it was accepting applications for grants to help residents rebuild homes and businesses damaged by Hurricane Harvey, which took a particularly devastating toll on this Houston-area town of some 20,000 people. The application is mainly comprised of unremarkable legalities, with one notable exception: a clause stating that the applicant will not take part in a boycott of Israel for the duration of the grant.
In addition to being mystifying — what do home repairs in Texas have to do with a country more than 7,000 miles away? — this requirement is clearly unconstitutional. The First Amendment protects the right of Americans to participate in political boycotts, a right explicitly recognized by the Supreme Court in a case that concerned an NAACP-organized boycott to protest white supremacy in Port Gibson, Mississippi. And the government cannot force people to give up their peaceful political activity in order to be eligible for public benefits. Those kinds of ideological litmus test went out of vogue with the McCarthy-era loyalty oaths that the ACLU fought against in the 1950s and 1960s.
The clause in Dickinson’s application seems to stem from a Texas state law passed earlier this year, which bans the state from contracting with entities that boycott Israeli companies or companies that do business in Israel or its settlements. Other cities are also enforcing the law. The city of Galveston has issued guidelines requiring contractors who bid for neighborhood projects to certify that they're not boycotting Israel, and it even requires contractors providing police uniforms to sign the certification. Austin and San Antonio have implemented similar requirements.
The ACLU filed a lawsuit earlier this month against a similar law in Kansas. In that lawsuit, we represent a math teacher who was asked to certify that she doesn’t boycott Israel in order to participate in a government program training other teachers throughout the state. She said she could not sign the form in good conscience because she adheres to a boycott call from her Mennonite church, and the state refused to contract with her.
The First Amendment was designed to prevent the power of the state from coming down against one side of an important political debate. Yet numerous state legislatures have passed laws to stamp out boycotts of Israel, and Congress is looking to pass a related federal bill that the ACLU vigorously opposes.
It’s deeply concerning that these efforts are now trickling down to the municipal level as well. We encourage anyone from Dickinson asked to sign such a statement, or any other Texans asked to sign these certifications, to contact the ACLU of Texas.