HIV-Positive Man Sues State Department Alleging Foreign Service Medical Requirements Illegally Discriminate
An HIV-positive man whose application for the Foreign Service was rejected on medical grounds yesterday filed a lawsuit against the State Department, saying that the department's criteria for employment are discriminatory and out-of-date, Reuters/Washington Post reports (Reuters/Washington Post, 9/4). Lorenzo Taylor of Arlington, Va., in November 2001 was conditionally accepted as a foreign service officer after he passed the required oral and written exams. However, the State Department declined to employ Taylor, saying that his HIV-positive status would prevent him from being stationed in certain posts (Marquis, New York Times, 9/4). The Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, which filed the federal lawsuit on Taylor's behalf, said that the State Department violated the federal Rehabilitation Act, which prohibits the federal government from discriminating against people with disabilities (Reuters/Washington Post, 9/4). The State Department in 2001 stopped routine HIV testing for foreign personnel and U.S. personnel hired locally to work at U.S. posts in other countries. Previously, U.S. ambassadors could choose to require HIV testing of foreign workers and locally hired U.S. citizens, a practice followed by about 20 overseas missions, many in Africa. However, the department did not suspend routine testing of applicants for the Foreign Service (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 8/24/2001). The HIV testing is part of a requirement that newly hired employees in the Foreign Service have "worldwide availability," meaning that they cannot have medical problems that would prohibit them from being stationed anywhere in the world, including areas that may have limited health care infrastructures, according to the New York Times. According to State Department officials, Foreign Service officers who are diagnosed with HIV after being hired are not dismissed (New York Times, 9/4).
Jonathan Givner, Taylor's lawyer, said that his client has been HIV-positive for 18 years and has never been incapacitated by his condition. Givner in the lawsuit asks that Foreign Service applicants be considered on a case-by-case basis to determine individual medical status and fitness for employment in foreign countries. Lambda officials also noted that in June 2002 Secretary of State Colin Powell called on private sector companies, including those in countries with high HIV prevalence, not to discriminate against HIV-positive employees. "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 (Agence France-Presse, 9/3).
State Department spokesperson Richard Boucher declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying only that the case is "a matter before the courts, and I think [the State Department will] have to respond there" (New York Times, 9/4). However, a senior state department official said that the policy is a matter of fairness to other U.S. diplomats. "We recognize that people who are HIV-positive have the ability to do the job. But is it fair to the entire corps to have some people come in who can only take assignment in a limited number of places and other people therefore who get shunted off to maybe less desirable places without the same quality of medical facilities?" the official asked (Reuters/Washington Post, 9/4). Louise Crane, vice president of the American Foreign Service Association, a professional association representing 23,000 active or retired members of the Foreign Service, said that an HIV-positive diagnosis, in addition to a diagnoses of asthma, heart disease and diabetes, usually leads to a denial of admission to the Foreign Service (New York Times, 9/4).