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DOJ orders Tennessee to stop enforcing statute it says discriminates against people with HIV

The U.S. Department of Justice has ordered Tennessee to stop enforcing a statute that discriminates against those living with HIV.

Under Tennessee’s aggravated prostitution law, people convicted of conducting sex work with HIV are put on the “violent sex offenders” list for life. The DOJ found the policy violates the Americans with Disabilities Act, since it subjects people living with HIV to harsher criminal penalties solely because of their HIV status.

“Tennessee’s aggravated prostitution law is outdated, has no basis in science, discourages testing and further marginalizes people living with HIV,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said. “People living with HIV should not be treated as violent sex offenders for the rest of their lives solely because of their HIV status.”

The DOJ found that individuals placed on the registry experience increased unemployment and homelessness. LGBTQ advocates have similarly criticized the law, arguing that it makes finding employment and housing nearly impossible for those convicted.

In addition to stopping enforcement, the DOJ called on Tennessee to remove those convicted from the violent sex offender registry and expunge their records.

In its letter, the DOJ mentioned enforcement in Shelby County and Memphis specifically, which is considered a national hotspot for HIV. Advocacy and non-profit groups in the county were vocal about the repercussions of Tennessee rejecting millions of dollars in federal funding for HIV testing and prevention earlier this year.

The statute was the subject of a lawsuit earlier this year, which remains ongoing and is separate from the DOJ’s investigation.

Marianna Bacallao is a Cuban American journalist at WPLN and the new afternoon host for Nashville Public Radio. Before coming to Nashville, she was the morning host and general assignment reporter for WVIK Quad Cities NPR, where she hosted through a record-breaking wind storm that caused statewide power outages. A Georgia native, she was a contributor to Georgia Public Broadcasting during her undergrad years and served as editor-in-chief for Mercer University’s student newspaper.
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