U.S. State Department Illegally Discriminates With HIV-Litmus Test On Foreign Service Applicants, Lambda Legal Argues In Lawsuit Filed Today

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With "the stroke of his pen," Secretary of State Colin Powell can comply with federal law and fulfill his own explicit call for fairness for employees with HIV
September 3, 2003

(Washington, D.C., September 3, 2003) — Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund filed a lawsuit in federal court today arguing that the State Department illegally prohibits anyone with HIV from being hired as a Foreign Service officer, regardless of applicant's qualifications or health status.


Lambda Legal represents Lorenzo Taylor, who is fluent in three languages, holds a Foreign Service degree from Georgetown University, and easily passed the tough written and oral exams required to be a Foreign Service Officer — but who was rejected by the State Department because he has HIV.  Taylor, a 48-year-old federal government employee who lives in the Washington, DC, area, appealed that decision but was again rejected and then worked with Lambda Legal to file an administrative complaint with the State Department late last year.


"There's no question that Lorenzo Taylor is extremely qualified to do this work and that he would do it well.  But because he has HIV, none of that matters to the federal government," said Jonathan Givner, AIDS Project Staff Attorney for Lambda Legal in its New York City headquarters.   "This policy prevents Lorenzo Taylor and other people like him from serving their country — all while there's a severe shortage of Foreign Service applicants with these skills and qualifications."


More than 10,000 Americans are Foreign Service Officers, assigned by the State Department to serve in embassies, consulates and other diplomatic posts in 180 countries.  The State Department prohibits the Foreign Service from hiring people with HIV in these positions, claiming that they may require medical treatment that isn't available in some of the less-developed countries where they might be stationed.  According to Lambda Legal, applicants should be assessed case-by-case to determine their individual medical status.  Other than the military, the Foreign Service is the only type of federal employment where people with HIV are broadly blocked from consideration. 


"This isn't just bad policy — it's also illegal," Givner said.  In today's lawsuit, Lambda Legal charges that the State Department is in violation of the federal Rehabilitation Act, which prohibits the federal government from discriminating against people with disabilities. 


Taylor, who has been living with HIV for 18 years, has never had long-term illnesses or opportunistic infections.  His medical needs are limited to two or three routine check-ups a year and a regular regimen of prescription medication taken twice daily.  The doctor he has been seeing for 14 years says he is in 'excellent' health.


"Being HIV-positive has impacted my life in countless ways since I was diagnosed, but it has never kept me from being able to do a job," Taylor said.  "I've always wanted to be a Foreign Service Officer.  I'm still hopeful that I can be judged based on the skills and experiences I bring, along with my overall long-term health status, rather than just on whether I have HIV."


Just over a year ago, Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke passionately about the need for employers to stop discrimination against people with HIV and AIDS.  "Corporate leaders can see to it that their managers implement fair employment practices to ensure there is no discrimination related to a person's HIV status – no stigmatization.  They are just like anyone else.  This is one of those lessons we have to get to all employers and nations around the world, that they must not stigmatize people who are ill...[U]nder President Bush's leadership, this government will commit all of its resources, all of its energy, all of its leadership ability, to playing its part," Powell said at an Open Forum Conference in Washington, D.C., in June 2002.


"The Secretary of State recognizes that HIV discrimination in the workplace is a problem around the country and the world, and today's lawsuit shows that it's a problem in his own workplace," Givner said.  "And Secretary Powell is in a unique position to make real change occur.  With one stroke of his pen, he can end HIV discrimination in the Foreign Service, bring the government into compliance with the law and follow through on his own promise of fairness."


Since Foreign Service Officers who test positive for HIV while they're already employed are allowed to keep their jobs, Lambda Legal said the State Department clearly is equipped to address employees' medical needs on a case-by-case basis. "There are people with HIV who are serving their country honorably and without any added hardship because of their medical status," Givner said.  "All we're asking is that Lorenzo Taylor and other applicants be judged as individuals and treated fairly."


Lambda Legal's AIDS Project has handled a number of cases on behalf of people who are denied employment because they have HIV or AIDS.  In recent years, Lambda Legal has successfully fought on behalf of people with HIV or AIDS whose rights under state and federal disability discrimination laws were violated by employers, businesses and public accommodations. 


Givner is Lambda Legal's lead attorney for Lorenzo Taylor v. Colin Powell


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 Contact: Tika Milan 212.809.8585 ext. 223; C: 716.446.3122; E: tmilan@lambdalegal.org


Lambda Legal is a national organization committed to achieving full recognition of the civil rights of lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transgender people and those with HIV through impact litigation, education and public policy work

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