(JTA) — A Texas city can stop asking residents who apply for Hurricane Harvey rebuilding funds to certify they will not boycott Israel, according to the lawmaker who wrote the state’s anti-boycott legislation.
Last week the American Civil Liberties Union complained that Dickinson officials were requiring applicants for Hurricane Harvey rebuilding funds to certify in writing that they will not take part in a boycott of Israel.
Dickinson City Management assistant Bryan Milward attributed the clause to a state law, signed in May, that requires all state contractors to certify that they are not participating in boycotts of Israel.
But according to state Rep. Phil King, the legislation’s author, the law does not apply to the situation in Dickinson.
“It’s not uncommon to have some confusion when a new law goes into effect,” King, a Republican, told the Israeli daily Haaretz in an interview Saturday. “This bill in no way applies to the type of situation that happened in Dickinson.”
The website for Dickinson, which is located near Houston, is accepting applications for individuals and businesses who need assistance following Hurricane Harvey, which devastated the area in August. Each applicant is asked to verify that he or she “(1) does not boycott Israel; and (2) will not boycott Israel during the term of this Agreement.”
Dickinson, a city of about 19,000, was hit especially hard by Harvey. More than three-quarters of its homes were damaged by the hurricane, and 830 were destroyed, according to Milward.
King told Haaretz that the law applies to the distriubtion of tax dollars, not private philanthropy.
“They had private contributions from citizens to a relief fund in the city, and the city has set up a grant program to give those funds to help in disaster clean-up and restoration,” King said. “Those are not taxpayer dollars, so the law by no means applies to these relief efforts.”
He said there was a “misunderstanding” and the state “needs to take steps to clarify things, so that something like this doesn’t happen again.”
King said of the legislation: “This is what the bill is about. This is America. If you’re an individual or a company and you want to boycott Israel, that’s your right to do so. We just won’t put our taxpayer money into it.”
The ACLU called the Dickinson application a violation of free speech rights.
“The First Amendment protects Americans’ right to boycott, and the government cannot condition hurricane relief or any other public benefit on a commitment to refrain from protected political expression,” ACLU of Texas Legal Director Andre Segura said in a statement. “Dickinson’s requirement is an egregious violation of the First Amendment, reminiscent of McCarthy-era loyalty oaths requiring Americans to disavow membership in the Communist party and other forms of ‘subversive’ activity.”
Milward emphasized that the city will not be verifying compliance with the clause and said he does not expect any applications to be rejected because of it.
“Because our application also functions as a contract, it was included in there,” Milward told JTA on Friday. “We’re not checking up on that. Our city secretary is not digging into anyone’s background. We’re not running background checks or anything like that. They’re attesting that they’re not boycotting, and we’re accepting that based on good faith.”
On Oct. 11, the ACLU filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of a public school math teacher in Kansas who was denied a state contract because she participates in the anti-Israel boycott.
Supporters of laws aimed at the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement argue that refusing to do business with a country is not protected speech, and that longstanding laws forbidding “support” for foreign state boycotts of Israel apply to the business transaction, not the political motivations. Proponents note that Americans are not free to violate U.S. law preventing business with countries like Iran, Cuba or Sudan, no matter their political beliefs.