In a victory that is being hailed as a "landmark ruling," a federal judge on Wednesday ordered the US military to stop restricting the career advancement of service members who test positive for HIV.
US District Judge Leonie Brinkema in Virginia handed down summary judgment orders in two cases that were first brought in 2018 by the LGBTQ civil rights group Lambda Legal on behalf of three different service members.
In one case, Sgt. Nick Harrison with the DC Army National Guard was denied a commission as a military lawyer in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps. In another, the Defense Department attempted to discharge two Air Force members — known pseudonymously in the lawsuits as Richard Roe and Victor Voe — due to their HIV status. The careers of all three service members were halted because current Pentagon policy prevents people with HIV from deploying overseas or from enlisting.
But Brinkema granted victory in the two cases to the plaintiffs without the need for a trial, writing in her two orders that the Defense Department was "enjoined from separating or discharging" or "denying the [commission] application of" the plaintiffs or "any other HIV-positive service member with an undetectable viral load."
"We are over the moon with this decision. We've been waiting a long time," Scott Schoettes, one of the attorneys who represented Harrison, told BuzzFeed News. "We are thrilled that the court has now come down on the merits in our favor and that our clients are going to be able to remain in the military, to deploy, and to commission as officers, and that's true now for all people living with HIV."
Schoettes compared the case to Bragdon v. Abbott, a 1998 Supreme Court case that determined HIV infection qualified as a protected category under the Americans With Disabilities Act.
"I think it's a landmark ruling," he said. "I don't know if there's been a ruling that is this definitive and will have the same impact that this will since maybe Bragdon v. Abbott."
Harrison told BuzzFeed News he was looking forward to moving forward with his military career and his life.
"I'm very happy about it," he said. "I guess that everyone else in the same position in the military is. We've been waiting on this for a long time."
He added, "In the past few years, everything was sort of on hold."
Lawyers for the service members had argued that Pentagon policy had not kept pace with modern advancements in medicine that have made HIV a manageable disease for most people. Treatments can now suppress the viral load to undetectable levels, in practice eliminating the danger of transmission.
"The military's policies around this issue are greatly influenced by the stigma that still surrounds HIV and the misunderstanding people still have around HIV and its transmission," Schoettes said.
Representatives from the Defense Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether they plan to appeal.