TOPEKA Kansas is on the path to join a growing number of states that won't award contracts to companies waging what one lawmaker called an "economic attack" on Israel, but pro-Palestinian groups believe the law discriminates against businesses for their political speech.
The bill would prohibit the state from participating in any boycotts of Israel or entering contracts with companies that participate. The House passed the measure 116-9 on Wednesday.
Similar policies in 17 states are intended to slow a Boycott, Divest and Sanction, or BDS, movement backed by pro-Palestinian freedom groups . Supporters of the movement say it's a way to promote Palestinian human rights, but pro-Israeli groups call it discrimination.
Supporters contend the laws don't prohibit free speech because individuals and companies can still criticize Israel, or they can boycott it as long as they're not vying for the state's business. But the state shouldn't "subsidize or reward discriminatory behavior," said Jacob Millner, Midwest regional director and senior policy analyst for the Israel Project.
Republican state Rep. William Sutton, who has called the boycotts an "economic attack" on Israel, said the bill would protect Kansas' trading relationship with the Middle Eastern country.
But Palestine Legal staff attorney Rahul Saksena said the U.S. has a long history of boycotts protected by the First Amendment. Palestine Legal defends people in the U.S. who speak out in support of Palestine.
Saksena said the organization is considering challenging the laws.
Democratic state Rep. Dennis Highberger, one of the nine Kansas lawmakers who voted against the measure, said rewarding contracts based on political speech is likely an infringement of First Amendment rights. He called it a "political feel-good bill" supporting Israel.
Patrick Miller, an assistant professor at the University of Kansas, said being seen as "anti-Israel" is often bad politics for lawmakers in either party. But he said being pro-Israel is particularly beneficial for Republicans whose supporters see Israel as an ally against the spread of terrorism and whose Christian supporters feel strong religious ties to the country.
So far, the Kansas Department of Commerce hasn't found that any of the state's contractors or other businesses in Kansas are openly boycotting Israel, said David Soffer, the agency's director of marketing and research. Under the bill, companies would have to provide written certification saying they're not boycotting Israel before they get a state contract.
Millner, with the Israel Project, said the boycott has been bigger in Europe, but the Kansas legislation would be a proactive step against the movement.
The bill still faces a vote in the Senate. Soffer said Republican Gov. Sam Brownback's office is supporting the measure. The governor's spokeswoman Melika Willoughby said "Governor Brownback has long been a supporter of Israel, and he looks forward to reviewing the bill when it comes to his desk."