The American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit Oct. 11 on behalf of a Mennonite teacher challenging a new Kansas law barring state contractors from taking part in boycotts against Israel.
Esther Koontz of North Newton is a math and science curriculum coach in the Wichita public school system. After qualifying in the spring to be a teacher trainer as a side job with the Kansas Department of Education, a state law took affect July 1 barring Kansas from entering into contracts with individuals or companies that boycott Israel or products made there.
Koontz could not in good conscience sign one last document that was needed before she could start the job.
“It simply says ‘I certify that I am not engaged in a boycott of Israel,’ ” said ACLU attorney Brian Hauss in an interview. “That to me certainly sounds like it is intended to apply to her personal time.”
Hauss said Koontz would not be purchasing anything for her role as a state contractor, and that Kansas is refusing to hire her based on her personal beliefs.
“I first became concerned with the situation in Israel and Palestine when I visited the region in the early 2000s, while serving a three-year term with the Mennonite Central Committee in Egypt,” said Koontz in an ACLU release.
Her interest intensified last fall after a member of her congregation, First Mennonite Church in Hutchinson, gave a presentation after participating in one of the “Come and See” tours sponsored by MCC and Mennonite Church USA. She is married to Nathan Koontz, associate pastor at the congregation.
“As a member of the Mennonite Church USA, and a person concerned with the human rights of all people — and specifically the ongoing violations of Palestinians’ human rights in Israel and Palestine — I choose to boycott consumer goods made by Israeli and international companies that profit from the violation of Palestinians’ rights,” she said.
Koontz believes the First Amendment protects the rights of all Americans to make consumer choices based on their political beliefs.
“You don’t need to share my beliefs or agree with my decisions to understand that this law violates my free speech rights,” she said. “The state should not be telling people what causes they can or can’t support.
“I am also sad that I cannot be a math trainer for the state of Kansas because of my political views about human rights across the globe. The two seem so distant and unrelated. My activism on behalf of freedom for all Israelis and Palestinians shouldn’t affect my ability to train math teachers. I hope this law will be recognized as a constitutional violation.”
The Associated Press reported Kansas is one of 21 states with similar laws. Supporters of such laws say the legislation doesn’t stop people from protesting Israeli policies, it just requires that they must forgo state contracts if they do and that states have the right to choose which contractors to use.
A few days after the Kansas law took effect, MC USA delegates passed the “Seeking Peace in Israel and Palestine” resolution on July 6 in Orlando, Fla. The resolution opposes the Israeli military occupation of Palestine and urges avoiding “the purchase of products associated with acts of violence or policies of military occupation.” It does not call for a boycott of all Israeli goods or for academic or cultural boycotts.
Hauss said that while Koontz’s association with MC USA is important in explaining why she undertook her personal consumer boycott, her legal claim is based on freedom of speech and association, and not freedom of religion.