PFLUGERVILLE, Texas (KXAN) — State Rep. Phil King intended to foster a business relationship between Texas and Israel by authoring a bill banning state agencies from working with companies that boycott the country, but now, he says his law is being misunderstood.
King, a Weatherford Republican, said he’s currently in the process of filing a bill that will clarify House Bill 89, known as the Anti-BDS (Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions) Bill. It bans all state agencies from contracting with, and certain public funds from investing in companies that boycott Israel. Gov. Greg Abbott signed it into law in May 2017.
“The intent was to not allow for tax dollars to be used to support an economic boycott against Israel, which is the state’s fourth largest trading partner,” King said.
Under House Bill 89, it defines the terms “Boycott Israel” as refusing to deal with, terminating business activities with, taking any action that is intended to penalize, inflict economic harm on or limit commercial relations specifically with Israel or with a person or entity doing business in Israel or in an Israeli-controlled territory. The legislation also defines a company as a for-profit sole proprietorship, organization, association, corporation, partnership, joint venture, limited partnership or affiliate of entities or business associations that exist to make a profit.
King said confusions about how the current statute should be applied were brought to his attention after a former Pflugerville Independent School District speech pathologist filed a complaint in federal court about an addendum she had to sign on her contract. The addendum required her to pledge she wouldn’t boycott Israel.
“When I saw that, my first reaction was shock,” Bahia Amawi, who has been contracted with Pflugerville ISD for about nine years as a speech pathologist, said. “I just paused. I didn’t even continue reading the rest of the codes. I was shocked because I didn’t understand – what does my job as a speech therapist, helping kids learn in growing their speech and communication in elementary school, has to do with economic harm to Israel. I found no connection.”
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) is helping Amawi with her legal challenge against the law. Pflugerville ISD responded to the lawsuit on a Facebook post, saying this language is required for all school districts in Texas, along with other government entities.
“Pflugerville ISD is committed to educating all students to be productive members of a diverse global community,” the post reads. “Unfortunately, Pflugerville ISD and all Texas school districts are at the mercy of the state and the regulations printed into law and in situations such as this, we are forced to spend time on state political issues and not on our core mission – educating students. Although Pflugerville ISD is the focus of the lawsuit, this is a state issue that affects all Texas public school districts and should be addressed at the state level.”
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is also named in Amawi’s complaint.
“Private citizens and companies have every right to express their views on any issue they wish by boycotting companies and citizens,” Marc Rylander, director of communications for Paxton’s office, said. “They do not, however, have a right to use money they obtain from government contracts to make that statement. The taxpayers of Texas do not want their money used to marginalize and attack a key ally and trading partner of Texas, and they have said so at the ballot box. They, too, have the right to express their views.”
The ACLU of Texas also filed a First Amendment challenge to the law on Tuesday. The group is representing four people.
“This lawsuit is about fundamental First Amendment rights, which protect us all from having the government use its power to force us to choose one side or another in a public debate,” said Edgar Saldivar, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas. “Whatever you may think about boycotts of Israel, the bottom line is that political boycotts are a legitimate form of nonviolent protest. The state cannot use the contracting process as an ideological litmus test or to tell people what kind of causes they may or may not support.”
King plans to amend the statute so that it does not apply to an individual or a sole proprietor.
“Our target was only business,” he said. “We’re going to simply clarify in the bill that it applies to enterprises, to businesses, to companies, to pension funds – that it doesn’t apply to a sole proprietorship – that it doesn’t apply to a small individual who is doing a single contract such as this lady in Pflugerville.”
Amawi says this law violates her civil liberties.
“I think no matter what they do, it’s still a violation of free speech,” she said.
The Texas Comptroller’s website has a list of companies that are known to boycott Israel. A spokesperson confirmed there are currently only three businesses on the list.