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Why We Went All the Way to the Supreme Court
“If we proceed with this lawsuit, we have to be all in.”
On the morning of November 29, 2005, Pathfinder International’s board of directors had to make a monumental decision of whether or not to sue the organization’s largest funder—the US Government.
Everyone at Pathfinder agreed that the “Anti-Prostitution Pledge”—a 2003 law requiring all groups receiving US Government funds for international HIV and AIDS work have a policy explicitly opposing prostitution—was damaging to public health. It could severely undermine efforts to prevent the spread of HIV worldwide by impeding organizations that work with key populations, and could intensify stigma and fear among sex workers, driving them further away from HIV education and prevention services.
Everyone at Pathfinder also agreed that the pledge violated free speech. While the government can dictate what can be done with its money, the pledge went far beyond that. It forced groups like Pathfinder to adopt an organization-wide policy, thereby restricting how they spend their own private funds to do HIV work.
All of this weighed heavily on Pathfinder staff and its board of directors. Yet, they had to ask—Is this our fight?
A Risk Worth Taking
During their meeting, the board spoke of the risk. If Pathfinder mounted a legal challenge, could it hurt the organization’s chances for federal funding, not just within PEPFAR (the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief), but beyond?
When they discussed how the restriction violated the First Amendment, Andrew Frey, a board member who specializes in Supreme Court litigation, rightly pointed out, “The Constitution is violated in some way or another every single day. We must decide if this particular constitutional violation is important enough to Pathfinder’s beliefs and concerns that it stands out from others, meriting action on our part. And if we do join the suit, we should do so with wholehearted commitment.”
The rest of the board agreed, and then added something critical. They noted the common thread between the board and Pathfinders everywhere—they are all compelled to support the world’s most underserved women. So in the final moments of the meeting, the board asked themselves, “Who is more underserved than a female sex worker in a developing country?”
Daniel Pellegrom, Pathfinder’s President and CEO from 1985 to 2011, remembers that question. “I also recall the pause—silence, really—that followed. Finally, someone said, ‘I think we are ready for a vote.’ The measure was moved, seconded, and passed. Pathfinder became co-plaintiff with AOSI (Alliance for Open Society International, Inc.) in a lawsuit against the US Government. There was not one opposing vote on the Pathfinder board.”
Courage is Communicable
“Without Pathfinder, the suit might have gone nowhere,” said Pellegrom. “No other organizations in our field seemed ready to seriously consider joining AOSI; the risk for them evidently outweighed the advantages. But AOSI needed help to meet the test of ‘standing’ in court. Since much of our work is supported by USAID, and we implement HIV and AIDS programs that target sex workers, Pathfinder was able to demonstrate how the pledge would limit our successful strategies in the fight against HIV and AIDS. Once Pathfinder took the plunge, more than 200 other organizations (under the umbrella of InterAction and Global Health Council) chose to align themselves with the case to take a stand.”
The case progressed with one court after another affirming Pathfinder’s stance. The US District Court for the Southern District of New York twice ruled that the pledge violated the First Amendment. In June 2006, the court issued a preliminary injunction, prohibiting USAID and the Department of Health and Human Services from enforcing the pledge against Pathfinder and AOSI. Two years later, the injunction was expanded to include the US-based members of the Global Health Council and InterAction, upon their becoming official co-plaintiffs in the suit.
In 2010, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the District Court’s decision that the pledge could not withstand heightened First Amendment scrutiny. Pathfinder was relieved, but continued its advocacy, believing the biggest test had yet to come.
Finally in April of 2013, more than seven years after Pathfinder’s board of directors took their vote, the Supreme Court of the United States heard the US Government’s appeal of Pathfinder’s lawsuit. In June, the court issued its important decision.
"This victory will enable us to continue to support the most underserved populations, treating them with the human dignity we all deserve and to do so without compromising any of our principles." -Purnima ManeThe US Supreme Court ruled 6-2 in Agency for International Development v. Alliance for Open Society International, Inc., et al., holding that the anti-prostitution pledge violates the First Amendment and cannot be sustained. In his majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that while Congress may attach conditions to federal funding that specify the activities Congress wishes to subsidize and require federal funds be used only for those purposes, a funding condition is impermissible if it intrudes on private speech outside the contours of the government program. The decision was a strong and resounding message in favor of Pathfinder and fellow co-plaintiffs, AOSI, Inc., InterAction, and Global Health Council, igniting celebrations among Pathfinder staff around the world.
Pathfinder’s current President and CEO, Purnima Mane, believes the victory speaks to the kind of organization Pathfinder is and always will be. “This victory will enable us to continue to support the most underserved populations, treating them with the human dignity we all deserve and to do so without compromising any of our principles. The onus is now upon us to do an even better job of getting services to all those who need them the most and are often denied access, and on doing so with greater impact and even better quality.”
And in India, where Pathfinder implements a successful project to fight HIV by empowering female sex workers, the verdict is a sign of things to come. “To be honest, I do not think many organizations in the US would have the stomach to do what we did!” said Darshana Vyas, Director of the Mukta project. “Our conviction and hard work all these years certainly paid off. This ruling is going to help marginalized and stigmatized populations we serve all over the world.”
Focus Area: Advocacy