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Texas can’t forbid an engineering firm from boycotting Israel as part of its contract with Houston City Hall, a federal judge has ruled.
U.S. District Judge Andrew S. Hanen on Friday stopped short of fully blocking a state law that prohibits government agencies from doing business with certain companies that boycott Israel. But his ruling said the free speech rights of A & R Engineering and Testing Inc. would be violated if its contract with the city included a clause saying the company will refrain from such a boycott. Hanen also said that Texas could not enforce its law against the company or the city.
A & R Engineering and Testing Inc. is being represented by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization. In a news conference Monday, the organization lauded Hanen’s decision but still pushed for the state’s anti-boycott law to be overturned.
“He acknowledged that that pro-Palestinian view is protected by the First Amendment,” said CAIR attorney Gadeir Abbas. “That may sound like little crumbs, but that’s a controversial take, and it’s a blessing.”
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict stem from disputes over occupancy and control of land both Israelis and Palestinians have laid claim to. Conservative Texas lawmakers have largely taken a pro-Israel stance.
Texas is one of more than two dozen states with laws that seek to limit boycotts, divestments and sanctions of Israel over its treatment of Palestine, actions often referred to as the pro-Palestinain BDS movement.
The Texas attorney’s general office did not respond to a request for comment, but Attorney General Ken Paxton appealed Friday’s ruling to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, known as one of the most conservative appeals courts in the nation.
According to the lawsuit, in October, A & R was entering into a renewal contract with Houston when it was required to certify that it wouldn’t boycott Israel during the length of the contract. The company asked the city to take the stipulation out of the contract, but the city refused, citing state law.
In court documents, the city of Houston had said it would follow the state law, but that it took no position on its constitutionality.
Texas passed an anti-BDS law in 2017. In 2019, it was rewritten to exclude individual contractors and only pertain to businesses with 10 or more full-time employees and when the contract is for $100,000 or more.
Before the law was rewritten, a federal court temporarily blocked the original law statewide in a lawsuit involving a speech pathologist who worked in the Pflugerville Independent School District. In that case, the U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman ruled that the statute suppressed “unpopular ideas” and manipulated “the public debate through coercion rather than persuasion.”