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Kansas Mennonite at the center of ACLU lawsuit

10.12. 2017 Written By: Hannah Heinzekehr, The Mennonite 4,218 Times read

Photo: Esther Koontz. 

For Kansas math and science coach Esther Koontz, a personal decision to boycott goods with connections to Israel has landed her on the national scene as part of a federal lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) challenging a 2017 Kansas law.

In an Oct. 12 statement published on the ACLU’s website, Koontz, a member of First Mennonite Church of Hutchinson, Kansas, wrote, “As a member of the Mennonite Church USA, and a person concerned with the human rights of all people — and specifically the ongoing violations of Palestinians’ human rights in Israel and Palestine — I choose to boycott consumer goods made by Israeli and international companies that profit from the violation of Palestinians’ rights.” This stance brought her into conflict with a Kansas law that took effect on July 1 that bars state contractors from participating in boycotts against Israel. According to the Associated Press, 21 states have similar policies.

Koontz is a math and science coach for teachers in the Wichita (Kansas) public school system and been chosen to participate in a statewide program to train other math teachers. In July, she says she received a note from the Kansas State Department of Education informing her that in order to participate in the training program, she would need to sign a document stating that she does not boycott Israel. When she refused to sign the statement as a matter of conscience, she was informed that she could not participate in program.

According to Koontz’s lawyer, Brian Hauss, this is the first lawsuit of its kind brought by the ACLU to protest a state’s boycott laws.

“We base our cases on what we feel is a threat to civil rights and civil liberties,” said Hauss in an Oct. 12 phone interview. “At the national office we are concerned about anti boycott laws because there have been a wave of them passed and it seems like an assault on the right to boycott, which is protected in the First Amendment.”

Hauss cited the 1982 Supreme Court ruling in the case of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People vs. Claiborne Hardware Co. as setting a precedent that protects the “peaceful advocacy” of a “politically motivated boycott.”

Koontz writes that her concerns about the Israel-Palestine region first developed while serving a three-year term with Mennonite Central Committee in Egypt, and intensified in fall 2016 when First Mennonite hosted a presentation by a congregation member who shared about his trip to Israel and Israeli treatment of Palestinians.

Koontz also cited the “Seeking Peace in Israel-Palestine” resolution passed by Mennonite Church USA delegates this July as having an influence on her decision to boycott. The resolution states, “While the resolution does not call for a boycott of all Israeli goods or for academic or cultural boycotts, it urges Mennonites to avoid purchases and investments directly related to the military occupation of Palestinian territories.”

“I am challenging this law because I believe that the First Amendment protects my right, and the right of all Americans, to make consumer spending decisions based on their political beliefs,” wrote Koontz. “You don’t need to share my beliefs or agree with my decisions to understand that this law violates my free speech rights.…I am also sad that I cannot be a math trainer for the state of Kansas because of my political views about human rights across the globe.”

Jonathan Brenneman, coordinator for Israel-Palestine peacemaking efforts across Mennonite Church USA, said that Koontz’s witness is “incredibly encouraging” for those across the church who worked on the resolution. “The resolution called on individuals and congregations to look at the ways that our lives are enmeshed in occupation and act upon that and that’s exactly what Esther’s doing,” he said in an Oct. 13 interview. “It’s encouraging to those of us that worked on the resolution to see people really taking this seriously.”

Hauss expects the case to move to a hearing before the end of the year.

“We hope this lawsuit will serve as a reminder of these constitutional rights to all these states with boycott laws,” he said.

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