Lawsuits Challenge Pro-Israel Loyalty Oaths
Pflugerville speech therapist challenges anti-boycott requirement in Texas law
By Mary Tuma, Fri., Dec. 21, 2018
A Pflugerville ISD speech and language pathologist is suing the district and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton for ending her employment after she declined to sign a pledge in her contract to not boycott Israel.
In August, Bahia Amawi received a contract from the district, as she had for the previous nine years; however, this one included an addendum requiring her to state she does not currently boycott Israel and will not boycott Israel during the term of the contract. Citing "moral issues," Amawi informed the district in September that she could not sign the loyalty oath, and they were forced to let her go.
Somewhat under the radar, the Texas Legislature passed in 2017, with broad bipartisan support, House Bill 89 by Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, which prohibits all government entities from contracting with any entity that boycotts Israel, and corresponding language has now begun to appear in public-sector contracts. The law takes aim at the "Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions" or "BDS" movement that calls for economic measures to bring an end to violence and human rights abuses against the Palestinian people under Israeli occupation. At least 24 states, both blue and red, have anti-BDS laws on the books; the movement is considered by foreign policy hawks to be subversive and by powerful pro-Israel groups to be anti-Semitic.
The federal lawsuit, filed on Dec. 16 in Austin, alleges HB 89's requirements violate the First Amendment. "Texas's ban on contracting with any boycotter of Israel constitutes viewpoint discrimination that chills constitutionally-protected political advocacy in support of Palestine," Amawi's attorneys write. They also argue that the law attempts to "impose an ideological litmus test" or compel speech related to contractors' political beliefs, associations, and expressions.
Amawi, a 30-year U.S. resident and mother of four U.S.-born children, believes she is the only certified speech pathologist in Central Texas who speaks Arabic, and she conducts early childhood evaluations and therapy for a growing number of Arabic-speaking children in the Pflugerville district. According to the suit, Amawi is an advocate for Palestinian rights and justice and supports BDS due to "Israel's continuing violations of international law in its treatment of Palestinians."
"When I saw that [addendum], it was a total shock to me," said Amawi during a press conference on Monday. "I didn't understand how my position helping kids with their speech has to do with economic harm to Israel. I was appalled that my government was restricting me from boycotting a certain entity. The scariest of all for me is that I could be held legally liable if I choose to purchase a certain product. ... This is an attack on all our civil liberties and our freedom of speech. It concerns all of our principles."
Attorneys with the Council on American-Islamic Relations point out that Amawi's situation is not an isolated instance. Survivors of Hurricane Harvey in Dickinson were told to sign a similar pledge in order to receive state aid in 2017, and the Texas Association of School Boards also pushed the oath on contractors, they said. On Tuesday, the ACLU of Texas also filed suit challenging HB 89 on behalf of contractors with Klein ISD, Lewisville ISD, the University of Houston, and Texas A&M-Commerce. The suit includes Zachary Abdelhadi, a student at Texas State University who was forced to forgo opportunities to judge high school debate tournaments.
"Whatever you may think about boycotts of Israel, the bottom line is that political boycotts are a legitimate form of nonviolent protest," said Edgar Saldivar, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas. "The state cannot use the contracting process to tell people what kind of causes they may or may not support."
Got something to say? The Chronicle welcomes opinion pieces on any topic from the community. Submit yours now at austinchronicle.com/opinion.