House seeks to change law dealing with Israel boycotts; local lawmaker says it’s unconstitutional

? The Kansas House on Friday advanced a bill that would make changes to a law enacted in 2017 prohibiting the state from contracting with any business or individual that is actively engaged in a boycott against Israel.

That new law is currently under a constitutional challenge in federal court where the American Civil Liberties Union is representing Esther Koontz, a North Newton resident and a member of the Mennonite Church who says she is personally engaged in such a boycott on religious grounds.

After the law took effect, Koontz said she was denied a contract to continue working for a Wichita public school because she refused to sign an affidavit, as now required under the new law, stating that she is not engaged in such a boycott.

Koontz and the ACLU claim the law violates the First and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution, which protect freedom of speech.

In January, U.S. District Judge Daniel Crabtree issued an injunction blocking enforcement of the law pending the outcome of a trial in the case.

Rep. Blaine Finch, R-Ottawa, explained on the House floor that House Bill 2778 is intended to address concerns raised in that lawsuit.

It would grant an exemption for individuals, such as Koontz, and sole proprietorships so that it only applies to corporations contracting with the state. It also limits the law so it only applies to contracts of $100,000 or more, and it would not apply to personal services or consultant contracts.

It also would provide an exemption for people engaged in a boycott if there is no connection between that boycott and the goods or services they are trying to sell to the state.

Still, that did not satisfy the concerns of the handful of lawmakers who opposed the original bill in 2017, including Rep. Boog Highberger, D-Lawrence, who said at that time that it was probably unconstitutional because the U.S. Supreme Court has long held that boycotts are a form of protected speech under the First Amendment.

“Well surprise, surprise, surprise,” Highberger said, recalling that earlier statement.

Highberger said he believes the bill makes some limited improvements to the original law, but he argued it is still likely to be found unconstitutional because “it still involves forced political speech or restrictions on political speech.”

“It still requires certain corporations doing business with the state of Kansas to provide what is essentially a certificate of political correctness,” he said.

The House advanced the bill toward final action on an unrecorded voice vote. A final vote to send it to the Senate is expected Monday.

Only 13 members of the House and three members of the Senate voted against last year’s bill. Highberger and Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, were the only members of the Lawrence delegation to vote no.