Landmark court ruling prohibits US military from discharging HIV-Positive recruits

Until now, the Department of Defense was the only entity in the US that was still legally permitted to discriminate against HIV-Positive people.

A US military service member poses in front of American flag, as HIV-Positive people can no longer be discriminated against.
Image: Pexels

Last week, a Virginia-based judge issued a landmark ruling prohibiting the US military from discharging HIV-Positive people from service. Since the mid-1980’s, HIV-Positive recruits had been banned from enlisting, and anyone who tested positive while enlisted was allowed to stay, but not allowed to be promoted.

According to a report in the Yale Law Journal, the Navy aimed to justify these restrictions by saying that those with HIV are unable to participate in “battlefield blood donor activities, or military donation programs.” However, on Wednesday, April 6, District Court Judge Leonie Brinkema of the US District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia ruled against these archaic measures.

The judge was overseeing two cases where unnamed plaintiffs, dubbed Richard Roe and Victor Voe, were discharged from the Air Force because of their HIV statuses. The two lawsuits were initially filed separately but were dealt with together for “discovery and argument” purposes.

Brinkema ruled that the military could no longer discharge or prevent promotions of HIV-Positive people, and also stated that the Defense Department’s policy was scientifically outdated and discriminated against those with HIV. The judge ordered the Air Force to rescind its decision to discharge the plaintiffs, and also declared that the Army must do the same for Sergeant Nick Harrison who was denied a commission because of his status.

Kate Ingelhart, a senior attorney at Lambda Legal representing the plaintiffs, spoke out following the ruling, saying: “Until these lawsuits, the Department of Defense was the only entity in the US that was still legally permitted to discriminate against people living with HIV despite the existence of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act.”

She added that “This ruling knocks down the barrier preventing people living with HIV from commissioning and brings an end to the military’s ongoing discrimination against approximately 2,000 service members currently serving with HIV.”

Sgt Harrison, a 43 year-old with tours in Afghanistan and Kuwait under his belt, stated: “It’s profoundly emotional to know that all service members with HIV will now be able to serve and defend our country without discrimination.”

The Oklahoma native continued: “I’m incredibly pleased with the court’s decision and it’s very reassuring to hear the court recognize that these policies are irrational and based on outdated stereotypes and stigma.”

Roe added to this, saying: “When aspiring to join the military, I would have never thought this would happen to me; now, I feel like my service matters even more.

“I no longer have to live in fear of discrimination based on the simple fact I am living with HIV.”

Voe commented: “I would love for this decision to serve as an educational opportunity for millions of people out there to realize that appropriately treated HIV has almost no effect on life expectancy, that science and medicine have progressed to a point that we can live normally and can perform any job, including that of a service member who deploys into a combat zone.”

It is yet to be determined if the Air Force or Army intend on appealing the court’s ruling.

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