ACLU Tells Peace Corps To Stop Barring People With HIV From Serving As Volunteers

April 21, 2008
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: (212) 549-2568 or (917) 566-1294; media@aclu.org

NEW YORK - The American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to the Peace Corps today demanding that it change its policy of barring people with HIV from serving as volunteers. The ACLU sent the letter on behalf of a Denver volunteer who was sent home from his post in the Ukraine and terminated after he tested positive for HIV.

"I joined the Peace Corps because I wanted to learn more about the world and help people," said Jeremiah Johnson. "It was hard enough to learn that I had contracted HIV, but to then be shipped home and told I was unworthy of finishing my service was incredibly humiliating."

Johnson, now 25, began his tour as a Peace Corps volunteer in December 2006. He tested negative for HIV prior to beginning his service. For nearly thirteen months, he was the sole volunteer in Rozdilna, Ukraine, where he taught English to middle and high school students. In January 2008, Johnson, who was in Kiev to attend a Russian language program with other volunteers, received a midservice medical examination and opted to take an HIV test. After the results confirmed that he was positive for the disease, he was immediately told that he could no longer work in the country because of a Ukrainian law barring people with HIV from working in the country. He was also told he would not be able to finish his service elsewhere.

Although he had no health problems, he was only allowed to return to Rozdilna for two days to pack his bags and say goodbye to the people he had met during his tour. He was forced to abandon projects that he had been developing to help the community. Johnson was then sent to Washington, D.C., for an end-of-service medical exam. In DC, he again asked Peace Corps officials to explain why he was being terminated and asked if he could continue his service elsewhere, but these requests were denied. Instead, he was given an automatic medical termination, stating HIV as the reason for his termination. (A copy of the termination is available at:
/hiv/discrim/34948res20080421.html)

The ACLU's demand letter charges that it is illegal under the Rehabilitation Act for the Peace Corps to discriminate against Johnson because he has HIV. The letter cites a recent federal appeals court decision finding that it is illegal for the Foreign Service to bar people with HIV from serving. In that case, the Foreign Service, which also sends workers around the globe, had argued that it was justified in barring people with HIV from service in order to protect the health of people with HIV who would be stationed in areas with limited access to medical treatment. The court rejected that rationale.

"There is not a single justifiable reason for the Peace Corp to bar people with HIV from serving as volunteers," said Rebecca Shore, an attorney with the ACLU's AIDS Project. "Jeremiah was, and continues to be, in good health, fully capable of performing his responsibilities. It is especially disappointing that an agent of our government would have an illegal and discriminatory policy barring people with HIV from trying to make the world better."

The ACLU's letter demands that the Peace Corps change its policy or confirm that it does not have a policy of automatically excluding all people with HIV. According to the ACLU, the Peace Corps must consider on an individualized basis whether an applicant with HIV can volunteer, including making every effort to place those who are able to serve in a country that doesn't bar people with HIV from working in the country.

"It was hard being sent home the way I was. I had no time to plan for my return. I was forced to have a lot of conversations I wasn't really ready to have. I had no money, no job and no place to live. Fortunately, my family welcomed me back with open arms and helped me get back on my feet," said Johnson. "But one thing I've come to realize is that having HIV won't stop me from realizing my dreams of helping others. I hope by bringing attention to what happened to me, the Peace Corp will realize that too."

A copy of the ACLU's demand letter and a copy of Johnson's termination papers are available at:
/hiv/discrim/34948res20080421.html)

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