AUGUST 10, 2017 – As a Jewish legislator representing a district with a large Jewish population, I am often called upon to lead on issues of importance to the Jewish community. Usually, the community is united in its support or opposition to an issue. However, as the lead sponsor of Bill S.1689, An Act Prohibiting Discrimination in State Contracts, I now find myself in the midst of a heartfelt debate within this diverse yet resolute community.
My bill would require those seeking to do business with the state to affirm that they are in compliance with all Massachusetts antidiscrimination laws and that they do not refuse to do business with others based on race, color, creed, religion, sex, national origin, gender identity, or sexual orientation. But opponents have characterized it as a bill that will silence their ability to protest against the policies of the State of Israel.
I understand the passion surrounding this bill. I place a great deal of value on each individual’s opinion and feelings on this matter, and I have had numerous discussions both public and private on the nuances of this bill. While I respect those who may oppose it, I am confident that this legislation is ‒ at its core ‒ written to strengthen our Commonwealth’s antidiscrimination laws.
As a strong and longtime civil liberties and civil rights advocate, my goal was to craft it in a way that ensures it will not infringe on an individual’s constitutionally protected right to free speech, or impact an individual’s right to peacefully protest or to criticize a foreign state. I believe this bill strikes the proper balance between furthering the Commonwealth’s interest in not subsidizing discrimination based on an immutable characteristic (such as national origin) while also protecting the cherished constitutional right of free speech.
This bill absolutely will not prevent an individual or business from protesting Israel’s – or any country’s – policies, or boycotting a company based on specific policies or actions that it finds objectionable. For example, boycotting a company because it is operating in the West Bank would certainly be allowed. Here is what won’t be allowed under my bill: If you want to do business with Massachusetts, there can be no discrimination based solely on characteristics that an individual cannot change, including discrimination based on nationality, whether that is Israeli or Iranian or any other state.
A hearing on this bill was held on July 18th at the State House, before the Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight. The public turnout was strong on both sides. While my friends (and they are my friends) at the ACLU expressed concerns about the supposed unwritten intent of the legislation, I was heartened that groups such as the AIDS Action Committee – a group that has long felt the sting of discrimination – testified in support of my bill.
The bill must first be released from committee before it can begin the rest of its legislative journey – a journey that I hope ends with the governor signing the bill into law. However, no matter the fate of this particular bill, in these times when words of anger and resentment against whole categories of people, based solely on national origin, are spoken from top government officials and embraced by too many in the public, we must remain resolute in identifying and not accepting unlawful discrimination in any form and no matter how it is disguised. The Jewish community knows this all too well.
This bill is hardly a cure-all, and in some ways it may be characterized as symbolic. But, even if it were merely symbolic, it stands for Massachusetts principles of not tolerating or subsidizing discrimination, and it is the right symbol and right message to send.
State senator Cynthia Stone Creem represents Newton, Brookline, and most of Wellesley.