Prostitution pledge: The court nixes a law that hurt AIDs relief groups

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Common-sense practices and constitutional principles don't always coincide. But the U.S. Supreme Court got it right on both counts in a decision last month. On a 6-2 vote, it declared that the government cannot force nonprofits fighting AIDS overseas to adopt its views on prostitution as a condition for receiving federal funds.

The federal government has distributed billions of dollars to international groups combating HIV. A 2003 law required these groups to have a policy explicitly opposing prostitution and sex trafficking. Such a condition, the high court rightly ruled, violates the groups' free-speech rights.

Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. wrote for the majority that the condition posed an unconstitutional burden because they constrained the groups from expressing a contrary view -- even in private speech or when spending their own money -- outside the operations and administration of the U.S.-funded programs.

The mandate was not only bad law but also counterproductive policy. Relief organizations argued that the requirement undermined their ability to work with those involved in prostitution, including efforts to reach those in brothels, where HIV is rampant.

"Public health groups cannot tell sex workers that we oppose them, yet expect them to be partners in preventing HIV," said Marine Buissonniere, director of the Open Society Public Health Program, one of the groups challenging the conditions.

In ruling correctly, the Supreme Court scrapped a policy that hurt the efforts of groups fighting AIDS.

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