The Supreme Court ruled 6-2 on Thursday that the U.S. government’s conditions for groups receiving international aid violated the First Amendment. USAID required that organizations receiving grants as part of President George W. Bush’s massive public health programs in Africa fighting HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis, must explicitly oppose prostitution and sex trafficking. Several groups balked, saying that position could harm their efforts to reach sex workers and violated their First Amendment rights.
Chief Justice John Roberts agreed in his majority opinion.
“The policy requirement compels as a condition of federal funding the affirmation of a belief that by its nature cannot be confined within the scope of the government program,” he wrote. “In so doing, it violates the First Amendment and cannot be sustained.”
Most religious freedom advocates, despite concern about groups potentially encouraging prostitution, had hoped the Supreme Court would overturn this policy. They hope through the ruling that the government won’t be able to impose politically driven beliefs on faith-based groups receiving public funding.
“[A] secular-minded government might use such a broad gag-power to exclude organizations that do not follow the current societal consensus on moral issues,” wrote Stanley Carlson-Thies in his International Religious Freedom Alliance report following the Supreme Court arguments in April. “It is a difficult case for a multitude of reasons. However, a decision that gives the federal government broad power to exclude from its grant programs organizations that do not toe the current governmental ideology would be a tragic outcome.”
Justice Elena Kagan recused herself from the case. Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented, writing that, “This policy requirement is nothing more than a means of selecting suitable agents to implement the government’s chosen strategy to eradicate HIV/AIDS.”