The Other Gay Rights Case: Why Today's Obscure Supreme Court Decision Is More Important Than We Think

Most commentators on the Supreme Court will regard June 20 as the day that the big thing didn't happen: No decision on marriage equality. But in fact, a lesser-known decision will have a wide-reaching, positive impact on LGBT equality, and civil rights generally, worldwide.

That decision, in Agency for International Development v. Alliance for Open Society International, Inc., had to do with a requirement that Congress put in place for organizations that receive USAID funds to combat HIV/AIDS around the world. Specifically, Congress required that the organization have a stated policy opposing prostitution and sex trafficking. Importantly, the requirement was not simply that funds could not be used to promote prostitution; rather, it was that any organization receiving funds had to take such a stand.

Today the Supreme Court ruled that this requirement is unconstitutional. According to the court, Congress can limit how federal funds are spent (e.g., it can refuse to fund abortion, or condom distribution, or whatever), but it cannot say to a potential grantee what they can and cannot say about an issue. That is a violation of the First Amendment.

On the most immediate level, this will impact scores of HIV/AIDS organizations around the world. These organizations fight HIV wherever it is, and if that means working with prostitutes and sex workers, so be it. Now they don't have to refuse millions of USAID dollars in order to work in the way they think is best. This Supreme Court decision is thus a huge win for fighting HIV worldwide.

But the effects are broader. Suppose a conservative Congress were to say, as many have proposed, that no federal dollars should go to any organization that "promotes" homosexuality, or abortion, or contraception, or any of the other sexual bugaboos of the religious right. The government argued in this case that such conditions should be allowed. But now we know that they are unconstitutional.

Once again, Congress can and does limit how aid dollars are spent. Witness the millions of dollars wasted on "abstinence-only" education, which has been shown to be ineffective. But it cannot discriminate among aid recipients, favoring only those that agree with its point of view. This matters in the context of international aid, and it matters domestically as well.

It also matters in the context of what we talk about when we talk about Supreme Court decisions. Obviously, whatever happens in the marriage cases will be a landmark in our country's social history. The AID case pales in comparison. But in terms of lives saved and lost, it may be of equal weight. The most pressing challenges faced by LGBT people are not those of relatively privileged Americans wanting to get married. They are those of people living in repressive societies around the world, of those in our own country who have been marginalized because of class or race, and of those still impacted by oppressive religious institutions.

These are people for whom access to health care -- including HIV prevention -- is literally a life-or-death issue. They may also be people at risk of rejection by their families, persecution by their governments, isolation by the social structures meant to protect them. Those impacted by HIV in the global south are often the most vulnerable members of society. And although they will never hear of the Supreme Court's decision in the USAID case, they will benefit from it.

June 20 may be a slower LGBT news day than some might have expected. But precisely for that reason, it might also call us to reflect on where we are paying attention.