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Ruling barring discharge of HIV-positive airmen upheld for now

RICHMOND, Va. — A federal appeals court has upheld an injunction barring the Trump administration from discharging two Air Force members who are HIV-positive.

The airmen sued in 2018, arguing that there is no rational basis for prohibiting deployment of service members with HIV. The men argue that major advancements in treatment mean the airmen can easily be given appropriate medical care and present no real risk of transmission to others.

A U.S. District Court judge in Maryland issued a preliminary injunction after finding that the Air Force is working under “irrational” and “outdated” policies. The ruling Friday from a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals means the injunction will remain in place while the men challenge their discharges at a trial.

The Department of Justice said the Air Force determined that the two airmen could no longer perform their duties because their career fields required them to deploy frequently and because their condition prevented them from deploying to the U.S. Central Command's area of responsibility, where most airmen are expected to go.

Central Command, which governs military operations in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia, prohibits personnel with HIV from deploying without a waiver.

While acknowledging that treatment decreases the risk of transmitting HIV, the DOJ argued that the risk is amplified on the battlefield where soldiers often come into contact with blood.

An attorney for the airmen argued during a hearing in September that the odds of transmitting HIV in combat are infinitesimal and should not limit their deployment or lead to their discharge.

“This ruling means the Trump administration cannot discharge any airmen based on their HIV-positive status during the pendency of this lawsuit," said Scott Schoettes, counsel and HIV Project Director for Lambda Legal, one of the groups that brought the lawsuit.

The airmen are not named in the lawsuit and are referred to by pseudonyms, Victor Voe and Richard Roe.

U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema, who issued the injunction, will decide the merits of the case at trial. The case will be heard by Brinkema, not a jury.

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