Airmen who have HIV can continue to serve, appeals court rules

Trials & Litigation

U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds

The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds perform an airshow in 2007. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

An appeals court has upheld an injunction blocking the U.S. Air Force from discharging two airmen because of their HIV-positive status.

The government’s justifications for the discharge “fail to account for current medical literature and expert opinion about current HIV treatment and transmission risks,” the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at Richmond, Virginia, wrote in its opinion Friday.

CNN and Courthouse News Service have coverage. How Appealing also noted the decision.

The two airmen filed the lawsuit against the Department of Defense and several officials under the pseudonyms “Richard Roe” and “Victor Voe” in December 2018. They had both been discharged after the Air Force determined that their illness made them unfit for military service, the court’s opinion states.

The airmen argued that the government discriminated against service members who have HIV through its rule that they couldn’t deploy outside the United States without a waiver. In February 2018, the Trump administration had introduced a new rule that said any service member who couldn’t deploy for one continuous year should be separated from service.

“A ban on deployment may have been justified at a time when HIV treatment was less effective at managing the virus and reducing transmission risks,” the court wrote. “But any understanding of HIV that could justify this ban is outmoded and at odds with current science.”

CNN reports that Air Force spokesperson Ann Stefanek contradicted the airmen’s allegations, contending that “the Air Force does not find all airmen with asymptomatic HIV unfit,” and that each Air Force member’s “fitness determination is conducted on a case-by-case basis.”

Scott Schoettes, counsel for the airmen and HIV project director at Lambda Legal, said in a statement Friday that “at the root of these discharge decisions and other restrictions on the service of people living with HIV are completely outdated and bigoted ideas about HIV.”

The ruling “clears the way for us to definitively prove at trial that a person living with HIV can perform the job of soldier or airman as well and as safely as anyone else,” he said.

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