Women who visit crisis pregnancy clinics want options. But they usually don't want to talk about abortion or the morning-after pill—and Heartbeat International intends to keep it that way.
That's why the pro-life group, which represents more than 1,300 pregnancy help centers, is urging the United States Supreme Court to overturn a federal pledge against prostitution. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and the Christian Legal Society are doing the same.
Their position may seem counter-intuitive, since all three organizations oppose prostitution. But the case boils down to whether or not the government can require groups to adopt its views before it gives them funds.
At issue: a Bush-era program to fight HIV/AIDS that requires grant winners to "explicitly [oppose] prostitution and sex trafficking."
Evangelical interest in the case is largely unrelated to prostitution per se, said Stanley Carlson-Thies, president of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance. "A government policy that can require private groups to commit to its ideological orthodoxy will increasingly margin- alize faith-based services."
Some fear that the antiprostitution policy could inspire the government to attach loyalty oaths to other federal benefits. It could require an organization like Heartbeat to tell clients about abortion, or a religious nonprofit to affirm the government's views on gay marriage or contraception, to retain tax-exempt status. Many believe such oaths violate the First Amendment and its promise of freedom of speech.
Walter Weber, senior litigation counsel with the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), counters that the right to freedom of association outweighs the right to free speech in this particular case. He says the government is not showing unconstitutional bias, but using bias the way any employer would: to see if potential partners will be a good fit.
But even the ACLJ believes the government's power to attach conditions to funds should be limited to groups who apply for funds on their own, said Weber. "We don't want [courts] to say the government can do whatever it wants."
He said the situation would be different if faith-based groups were being forced to agree with the government in order to receive widely available public benefits. Similarly, the ACLJ would not support loyalty oaths that were unrelated to the purpose of a program. One hypothetical example is requiring churches to support the Affordable Care Act before receiving federal tax breaks.
Discriminating against faith-based groups in that way would be "impermissible," Weber said. He hopes the Supreme Court's ruling will draw a line between the two types of discrimination—the helpful kind and the coercive kind.
Yet Ellen Foell, legal counsel for Heartbeat International, says she wants the antiprostitution policy struck down. Although the policy does not affect pregnancy centers directly, she said, "The U.S. Constitution does not allow the government to determine … what [groups] shall say, and how it should be said."
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