By Bob Roehr
WASHINGTON – A unanimous three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia has ruled that the State Department must stand trial for failing to hire a qualified man as a foreign service officer simply because he is HIV positive. The decision was handed down on National HIV Testing Day, June 27.
Lorenzo Taylor, 47, is a graduate of the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and is fluent in three languages. He currently works as one of the senior federal administrators of the Ryan White program, which funds much of the domestic AIDS program. He had passed all of the hurdles to join the State Department when, in 2001, a medical review dashed his plans to become a diplomat.
State Department regulations say that new employees must be available for worldwide service and that being HIV positive is an automatic exclusion. However, current employees are diagnosed with the disease may continue to work so long as their health allows.
Taylor, with the assistance of Lambda Legal, sought reasonable accommodations–a medical exemption, or using his vacation and sick leave whenever doctor visits were necessary.
When they exhausted all administrative channels, they filed suit in federal court in 2002, charging a violation of the Rehabilitation Act. In April 2005 a judge issued a summary judgment agreeing with the State Department, which was overturned by the Appeals Court.
Judge A. Raymond Randolph, writing for all three judges, found that there were matters of fact in contention on all of the points on which the original judge ruled for the Department. They ordered that a trial be held to establish a record and resolve those issues.
One question is whether or not a new employee must be available to serve in 100 percent of overseas posts, as the Department maintained.
The judges clearly were skeptical during oral arguments and in their ruling. They noted that the Department had exempted a dozen new employees from that standard in the four years prior to rejecting Taylor, and that it allows persons who become infected while working for the Department to remain as employees.
They also questioned the extent of the burden that accommodating Taylor would place on the Department, a matter which the parties disputed. As Judge Randolph said during oral arguments in April, the assumption of the Rehabilitation Act “is that some people are going to be treated differently than others.”
Lambda attorney Jon Givner is “pleased to see that the court sees through the faulty reasoning used by the State Department to substantiate discriminatory and baseless policy. This ruling establishes that our client must have his day in court.”
Taylor said he “absolutely” remains committed to serving his country. He pointed out that a State Department medical clearance is required to do HIV work in Africa for the CDC or other agencies. “It really does impact a lot of the other types of work that I would like to do.”
Lambda also has an ongoing petition campaign to urge Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to reverse the policy, which she has the authority to do. Lambda delivered 5,000 petitions to the Department on June 8 and has been collecting additional signatures at gay pride events throughout the country.