US Muslim group sues to block anti-BDS measure in Maryland
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US Muslim group sues to block anti-BDS measure in Maryland

Latest First Amendment suit comes as Democratic lawmakers block GOP Senate bill granting states legal cover for penalizing contractors who support Israel boycott

Demonstrators protesting against Israel in New York City, June 2016. (Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Demonstrators protesting against Israel in New York City, June 2016. (Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

A Muslim civil rights group is suing to block the US state of Maryland from enforcing an executive order barring state agencies from contracting with businesses that boycott Israel.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations sued Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and state Attorney General Brian Frosh on Wednesday on behalf of software engineer Syed Saqib Ali, a former state lawmaker.

The October 2017 executive order requires contractors to certify that they don’t boycott Israel. Ali’s federal lawsuit says the order bars him from bidding for government software contracts because he supports boycotts of businesses and organizations that “contribute to the oppression of Palestinians.”

CAIR says 26 states have enacted anti-BDS legislation similar to Maryland’s that prohibits the state from working with entities that boycott Israel, though none have passed measures making participating in a boycott of Israel illegal.

CAIR attorney Gadeir Abbas noted that other federal lawsuits have challenged the anti-BDS measures in Arizona, Arkansas, Kansas and Texas.

Texas speech pathologist Bahia Amawi, who filed a federal lawsuit after her school district refused to renew her contract unless she signed a pro-Israel oath. (screen capture: The Intercept)

In December, CAIR filed a motion in a Texas federal court on behalf of a speech pathologist who was fired for refusing to sign an anti-BDS pledge included in her employment contract.

On Friday, attorneys for an Arkansas newspaper asked a federal judge to block a law requiring that contractors pledge not to boycott Israel, saying the measure forces businesses to give up their free speech rights in order to receive state money.

The states’ anti-BDS laws have been roundly criticized by free-speech and pro-Palestinian activists. However, the First Amendment lawsuits filed in Texas and Arkansas may be the first time a US court will be asked to rule on the constitutionality of the legislation.

The latest legal pushback comes as Senate Republicans attempt to pass their first bill of the new Congress, which includes a measure supporting Israel against boycott efforts.

The bipartisan package backed by Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had initially drawn widespread support ahead of Tuesday’s vote. It consolidated four Middle East policy bills that languished in the last Congress, including one that would give states legal cover for penalizing contractors that boycott Israel.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., speaks with reporters on his way to the senate chamber, as the Senate takes up a House-passed bill that would pay for President Donald Trump’s border wall and avert a partial government shutdown, at the Capitol in Washington, Friday, Dec. 21, 2018. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

But Democrats were split over the addition of Republican Sen. Marco Rubio’s “Combating BDS Act,” which seeks to counter the global Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement against Israel over its treatment of Palestinians and the settlements.

For now, the package has stalled on a vote of 56-44, not enough to clear the 60-vote hurdle needed to advance.

Democratic lawmakers said they would block Rubio’s measure in future votes, and slammed Republicans for focusing on foreign policy instead of the ongoing government shutdown initiated by President Donald Trump’s refusal to advance spending bills that don’t include more than $5 billion for a border wall he wants with Mexico.

Israel sees a growing threat from the BDS movement, which has led to increased boycotts of the Jewish state in support of the Palestinians. Over a dozen recording artists pulled out of a Woodstock-style concert in Israel last year and some companies stopped offering services in the West Bank settlements.

In support of Israel, Rubio’s measure would affirm the legal authority of state and local governments to restrict contracts and take other actions against those “engaged in BDS conduct.”

Opponents say Rubio’s measure infringes on free speech guaranteed in the First Amendment. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders this week said it was “absurd that the first bill during the shutdown is legislation which punishes Americans who exercise their constitutional right to engage in political activity.”

US House Representative Rashida Tlaib participates in a ceremonial swearing-in at the start of the 116th Congress at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, January 3, 2019. (SAUL LOEB/AFP)

The country’s first Palestinian American woman in Congress, Michigan Representative Rashida Tlaib, said over the weekend that boycotts were “a right & part of our historical fight for freedom & equality.”

“Maybe a refresher on our US Constitution is in order, then get back to opening up our government instead of taking our rights away,” she said in a tweet.

Rubio, a Florida senator, said in a series of tweets ahead of Tuesday’s vote the bill was exposing anti-Israel attitudes within the Democratic party.

In one tweet apparently directed at Sanders and Tlaib, Rubio said that “the shutdown was not the reason Senate Democrats don’t want to move to Middle East Security Bill…A significant # of Senate Democrats now support #BDS & Dem leaders want to avoid a floor vote that reveals that.”

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