Today, Lambda Legal asked a U.S. District Court to strike down the last remaining ban preventing people living with HIV from joining any branch of the U.S. Armed Services. Together with co-counsel Winston & Strawn LLP, Perkowski Legal, PC, and Scott A. Schoettes, Esq., Lambda Legal filed a motion for summary judgment in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia.
“We ask that this court strike down this discriminatory policy barring people living with HIV from seeking enlistment or appointment to the military because they are able to perform all job duties associated with military service, including worldwide deployment,” said Kara Ingelhart, senior attorney for Lambda Legal. “It is time for the military to acknowledge that arguments based on outdated science or concern for preserving monetary resources are no longer defensible. Neither can continue to be used to deny anyone the opportunity to join the military and to serve their country.”
“Giving up on my dream to serve my country is not an option. The military is in my blood, my family has served in every military campaign dating back to the Civil War,” said Plaintiff Isaiah Wilkins. “From joining the Georgia National Guard at age 17, being honored with a prestigious scholarship to attend Georgia Military College, to earning a prestigious spot at the U. S. Military Academy Preparatory School at West Point, I was on a trajectory to fulfilling this dream. I urge this court to strike down this discriminatory policy. People living with HIV want to serve. We raised our hands and said, ‘I volunteer.’”
“For years, the military has found it difficult to meet the recruitment and end-strength goals for an all-volunteer force. Given this reality, it is non-sensical for the nation’s largest employer to turn away healthy, fit, and fully capable recruits just because they have HIV,” said co-counsel Peter Perkowski, who is also the Legal & Policy Director of plaintiff Minority Veterans of America. “This policy undermines efforts to build and maintain a strong, vibrant military, and there’s no scientific support for it. We will keep fighting until it ends.”
“We ask this court to knock down this barrier, bringing an end to the military’s discrimination against servicemembers based on their HIV-positive status,” said Bryce Cooper of Winston & Strawn. “Singling out service members living with HIV in light of the current reality of treating and preventing HIV must come to an end.”
The lawsuit, Wilkins v. Austin, was filed on behalf of three plaintiffs who were denied enlistment based on their HIV status. Minority Veterans of America (“MVA”) is also a plaintiff. MVA advances the interests of its civilian members who are living with HIV and wish to serve in the military.
The filing followed the Biden administration’s announcement in July 2022 that it would no longer defend discriminatory restrictions that prevented servicemembers living with HIV from deploying and commissioning as officers. Instead of appealing the decision of the district court declaring these restrictions unconstitutional, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III issued a memorandum outlining changes to the relevant regulations, which stated that individuals who have been identified as HIV-positive, are asymptomatic, and who have a clinically confirmed undetectable viral load will have no restrictions applied to their deployability or to their ability to commission while a servicemember based on their HIV-positive status.
Before the July 2022 announcement, a federal district court handed down one of the most substantial judicial rulings in over two decades for people living with HIV in two cases—Harrison v. Austin and Roe & Voe v. Austin. The rulings ordered the Department of Defense (DOD)—the world’s largest employer—to stop discriminating against servicemembers living with HIV and to allow them to deploy and commission as officers in the U.S. military. That groundbreaking ruling represented a landmark moment in the fight to advance the rights of people living with HIV. It reflected the reality that HIV is a chronic, treatable condition, not a reason to discriminate.
Joining Lambda Legal attorneys Kara N. Ingelhart, Shelly L. Skeen and Gregory R. Nevins on the case are Scott A. Schoettes, Esq., Peter Perkowski of Perkowski Legal, PC, and Amandeep Sidhu, Bryce Cooper, Robert Vlasis, Lauren Gailey, Dave Bujarski, and Hannah Shankman of Winston & Strawn LLP.
Read more about Wilkins v. Austin, here.
Read more about Harrison v. Austin here.
Read more about Roe & Voe v. Austin here.