A former Maryland state representative has filed a civil rights lawsuit against Gov. Larry Hogan and Attorney General Brian Frosh, taking aim at an executive order denying government contracts to businesses that boycott Israel.
The suit, filed Wednesday in federal court by Syed Saqib Ali, alleges that the Maryland leaders violated his First and 14th Amendment rights when Hogan signed an executive order in October 2017 requiring all state contractors to promise they will not boycott Israel.
“We are confident that our executive order is completely consistent with the First Amendment and will be upheld in court,” the governor’s spokeswoman Amelia Chasse said in an email Wednesday.
The office for Frosh, a Democrat, had not seen the complaint Wednesday morning and does not comment on pending litigation, spokeswoman Raquel Coombs said in an email.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, the nation's largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, is providing legal counsel for the Montgomery County resident in his suit. CAIR also filed a similar suit in December on behalf of Bahia Amawi, a speech pathologist who was fired from a Texas school district after she refused to sign an addendum to her contract stating she would not boycott Israel.
Ali works as a computer software engineer and occasionally seeks bids for government contracts as part of his profession, the suit states.
Ali said Hogan’s executive order bars him from even submitting bids on certain software engineering projects advertised by Maryland agencies because of a requirement that he include a “No Boycott of Israel” certification along with his proposals.
The primary aim of the suit is to have Hogan’s order declared unconstitutional and voided. Ali’s lawsuit seeks financial reimbursement for legal fees, but not for missed employment opportunities with the state.
Still, Ali said, he has lost out on potentially thousands of dollars in income because of the order. For example, he had planned to bid to complete one such state project for $50,000, which would have meant about $15,000 in income had he won.
Hogan’s order was meant to thwart the international, Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, which urges companies to refuse to do business in Israel. The order appeared to be largely symbolic, as the administration could not identify contractors engaged in a boycott, The Baltimore Sun reported at the time.
Ali, a former member of the Maryland House of Delegates, has been vocal in recent years about the Israeli boycott. In 2014, he organized “Freedom2Boycott in Maryland,” a coalition of statewide grassroots activists opposed to Maryland’s legislative proposals targeting the BDS movement, according to the suit.
Ali also refuses to purchase certain products that have ties to Israel, including Sabra hummus and SodaStream, the suit states.
The software engineer has felt strongly about Palestinian rights since he was a child, he said Wednesday.
“What’s happening in Palestine is bad enough,” Ali said. “But when American politicians started punishing Americans for supporting Palestinians, that was just the straw that broke the camel’s back. That was too much. I could not tolerate that and I could not abide that.”
Ali expects some critics will say he is anti-Semitic for boycotting Israel, a label he vehemently rejects. The lawsuit is about civil rights, not international politics, he said.
“The governor of Maryland has violated my constitutional rights,” he said. “I am only standing up to protect my own rights.”
Maryland’s policy has been supported by entities such as the Baltimore Jewish Council, which worked with the governor’s office on the executive order, said executive director Howard Libit.
“Gov. Hogan’s executive order is clearly focused on business entities and prohibiting the state from giving contracts to companies that choose to participate in a discriminatory economic boycott of Israel,” Libit said. “Individuals have the freedom to feel how they want to.”
Hogan is not the only Maryland politician to attempt to implement anti-BDS measures.
In 2018, Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, a Democrat, sponsored a bipartisan bill intended to prohibit businesses from taking part in international efforts to boycott Israel, The Sun reported at the time. U.S. senators are currently considering a bill sponsored by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican, that seeks to give state and local governments the authority to adopt or enforce anti-BDS measures.
State lawmakers also considered a bill in 2014 that would have prevented the use of public college and university money to support scholarly membership to academic organizations that boycott Israel and a bill in 2017 that would authorize state agencies to deny contracts and pension fund investments to companies taking part in the boycott.
Then-Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer, a Democrat, signed a “Declaration of Cooperation” in 1988 that promised mutual economic support between Israel and Maryland.
Ali’s suit says Maryland is one of at least 25 states to have implemented anti-BDS requirements through legislation or executive orders. There have been similar civil rights lawsuits in several states, including Texas and Kansas.