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High court strikes down anti-prostitution pledge

| Thursday, June 20, 2013, 7:36 p.m.

WASHINGTON — In a free-speech ruling, the Supreme Court said on Thursday that the government cannot force private health organizations to denounce prostitution as a condition of getting taxpayer money to fight AIDS around the world.

Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the court, said the anti-prostitution pledge in a 2003 AIDS funding law improperly restricts the groups' U.S. constitutional rights.

Four organizations that work in Africa, Asia and South America challenged the provision in the law, arguing their work has nothing to do with prostitution.

The Obama administration had countered that it is reasonable for the government to give money only to groups that oppose prostitution and sex trafficking because those activities contribute to the spread of HIV and AIDS. It said that if groups were not required to oppose prostitution and sex trafficking, they could spend private funds in a way that might undermine the government's mission.

In the 6-2 decision, Roberts wrote that requiring the pledge “goes beyond preventing recipients from using private funds in a way that would undermine the federal government. It requires them to pledge allegiance to the government's policy of eradicating prostitution.” That, the government cannot do, he wrote.

Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented. Scalia said the pledge “is nothing more than a means of selecting suitable agents to implement the government's chosen strategy to eradicate HIV/AIDS.”

“That is perfectly permissible under the Constitution,” Scalia wrote.

The AIDS funding case was one of three decided. The court also:

• Sided, by a 5-3 vote, with American Express in ruling that merchants who object to having to accept the company's debit and credit cards along with its iconic charge card cannot band together, but must resolve their disputes with the company one by one.

• Ruled 8-1 to limit judges' discretion in deciding whether defendants should be sentenced under a federal law that increases prison terms for people who have been convicted of three serious crimes.

Eleven cases remain unresolved as the court heads into its final days before taking a summer break. Among the outstanding cases are two involving gay marriage and two dealing with race — challenges to federal voting rights law and affirmative action in college admissions. The justices next meet on Monday to issue opinions.

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