(WB) Lawyers for Civil Rights (LCR) filed a federal civil rights lawsuit Thursday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Vermont against U.S. military officials and the Vermont National Guard, challenging the antiquated, irrational, and discriminatory policies that bar individuals living with HIV from their professional aspirations of enlisting in or commissioning to the military.
This lawsuit is brought by John Doe, a Latinx student at a Vermont military academy, who suddenly found himself separated from the Army National Guard and removed from Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), the pathway to commissioning with the military as an officer, when he learned that he is HIV-positive. Like many individuals living with HIV, Mr. Doe is on antiretroviral therapy that keeps him healthy and renders his viral load undetectable. Although his treating physician has confirmed that this means he has no physical limitations, the military deemed him unfit for service based on his HIV status alone.
“I am filing this lawsuit to prevent the military from arbitrarily discriminating against people living with HIV,” said Mr. John Doe. “I also hope that this lawsuit can return my dream of a military career to me.” Mr. Doe is deeply devoted to serving his country and has aspired to be a service member since the age of seven. He was raised by a single mother and born into a Latinx family with extensive military history. The military’s current discriminatory policies, however, have trampled Mr. Doe’s dreams.
“It is unacceptable that the U.S. military continues to perpetuate harmful stigma against people living with HIV,” said Sophia Hall, Deputy Litigation Director at Lawyers for Civil Rights. “By this lawsuit, we aim to end these antiquated military policies based on outdated science.”
“These military policies against people living with HIV are unconstitutional and all-around a poor business practice,” said Oren Sellstrom, Litigation Director at Lawyers for Civil Rights. “The U.S. military is eliminating a talented and diverse workforce on the basis of old science that bears no relation to current fitness.”
Today’s lawsuit opens up a new frontier in the fight against HIV discrimination by the military, by challenging military policies that prevent individuals from embarking on a military career. A federal judge from the Eastern District of Virginia recently ruled that asymptomatic HIV-positive service members with an undetectable viral load cannot be separated or discharged from the military merely because of their HIV-positive status. Today’s lawsuit seeks to extend that ruling to those aspiring to a military career. In addition to asking the Court to reinstate Mr. Doe, the lawsuit asks the Court to invalidate the regulations and policies that led to his separation.
Attorney Hall highlighted the civil rights implications of the lawsuit, noting that Black and Latinx individuals make up nearly 70% of HIV diagnoses, but only 30% of the U.S. population. “Military service has long been viewed by communities of color as an admirable path to education and job security,” she said. “That path should not be foreclosed based on the military’s outdated and discriminatory policies regarding HIV.”