Tennessee’s Lifetime Registration for Sex Workers with HIV Violates ADA
The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has found that Tennessee’s aggravated prostitution law, which enforces lifetime registration as a “violent sex offender” for those convicted of engaging in sex work while living with HIV, violates the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). This law, which is the only one of its kind in the country, applies regardless of whether the person knew they could transmit the disease.
Discrimination Against LGBTQ+ Individuals and Civil Rights
The DOJ’s findings are in response to an ongoing lawsuit. The law has been criticized by advocates for LGBTQ+ individuals and civil rights as discriminatory as it makes it almost impossible to find housing and employment due to the restrictions for violent sex offenders.
Call to Action by the DOJ
The DOJ has called on Tennessee to cease enforcing the law and remove those convicted under the statute from the sex offender registry and expunge their convictions. Additionally, the agency has urged Governor Bill Lee to introduce legislation to repeal the law. HIV and AIDS are considered disabilities under the ADA as they substantially hinder life activities.
Outdated, Unscientific and Marginalizing
Tennessee’s aggravated prostitution law is deemed outdated, unscientific and marginalizing by the DOJ. Kristen Clarke, Assistant Attorney General with the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division stated, “People living with HIV should not be treated as violent sex offenders for the rest of their lives solely because of their HIV status.”
Tennessee’s Aggravated Prostitution Law: Implications and Struggles
In Tennessee, prostitution has long been criminalized as a misdemeanor. However, in 1991, in the midst of the AIDS epidemic and panic, Tennessee lawmakers enacted an aggravated prostitution statute that was a felony and applied only to sex workers living with HIV. The law was later reclassified in 2010 as a “violent sexual offense,” requiring those convicted to face lifetime sex offender registration. Through a spokesperson, District Attorney Steve Mulroy expressed agreement with the DOJ’s findings, explaining that the allegations stem from cases handled before he took office in September 2022. DOJs letter included the struggle of those with aggravated prostitution convictions, citing how lifetime sex offender registration stops people from visiting with their grandchildren, revokes job offers and severely limits housing options. One individual shared that they were barred from pursuing education.
A Lawsuit Seeking to Block the Law in October
Four unidentified persons and OUTMemphis, an organization that serves LGBTQ+ people, filed a lawsuit in October, seeking to block the law. The DOJ’s letter further supports their efforts. The executive director of OUTMemphis, Molly Quinn, says: “Whether this issue is resolved informally or in court, it is long past time to end HIV criminalization.”
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Employment Laws: Disability & Discrimination
Disability Discrimination and Employment Decisions