Governor Blunders on AIDS

Gov. George Deukmejian's veto of AIDS anti-discrimination legislation is a blow to public-health efforts. His veto message indicated that his decision was based on technical grounds that ignore the consensus among public-health workers engaged in the effort to control the pandemic.

The bill would have protected all persons who test positive for the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) from discrimination in terms of employment and housing. That protection already exists for those with AIDS. Public-health officers have urged the extension of this protection to those who have the virus, but have not been diagnosed as having AIDS, as essential to winning the confidence of high-risk populations so that they will fully cooperate with programs to control the spread of the disease. That was done earlier this week by the Justice Department in a ruling affecting federal employees. Protection against discrimination was one of the major recommendations of the Presidential Commission on the Human Immunodeficiency Virus Epidemic headed by Adm. James D. Watkins. It is a recommendation that has won widespread bipartisan support, including endorsements from both Democratic and Republican candidates for President. The bill, by Assemblyman John Vasconcellos (D-Santa Clara), was one of four priority AIDS bills supported by the California Medical Assn. It passed the Legislature by votes of 41 to 34 in the Assembly and 24 to 3 in the Senate.

In vetoing the bill, the governor said it was not necessary because those with AIDS "or 'perceived' AIDS" already are protected by the State Fair Employment and Housing Act. He noted accelerated procedures for complaints involving AIDS by the Fair Employment and Housing Commission. But he opposed singling out in law specific disabilities and diseases, calling instead for broad definitions of physical handicaps.

The trouble with that argument is that it ignores the problem that inspired the legislation in the first place. Those who test positive for HIV but have no AIDS symptoms were not mentioned in the landmark 1987 ruling on AIDS by the Fair Employment and Housing Commission. The ruling cited protection against discrimination only for those with AIDS. The status of those who have the virus but are asymptomatic is unique. That is why the presidential commission urged particular protections. That is why public-health officials have urged this legislation. In the absence of clear protections, the fear of loss of jobs or housing among those who test positive has been a demonstrated deterrent to winning their cooperation to accept testing, to undergo counseling, and to commit themselves to changed behavior to reduce or eliminate the risk of infecting others.

It will be a welcome development if, as the governor states in his veto message, the Department of Fair Employment and Housing "is developing other effective ways of informing and educating the public about their rights under the FEHA, such as revising publications to reflect anti-discrimination policies regarding AIDS and its agents." But that will be useful only if it specifically addresses the asymptomatic population with HIV. Even then, an administrative ruling will not provide the reassurance that the Vasconcellos' legislation would have provided.

"Finally, AB 3795 singles out one particular disability for protection," Deukmejian concluded. "Other specific disabilities may be equally deserving."

But we don't know of any others that require this form of protection. That is a good argument, not for doing nothing, but for doing more.

To make matters worse, the governor also vetoed legislation that would have restored some authority for the Fair Employment and Housing Commission to levy penalties that had been lost in a court ruling a year ago. That veto raised questions about the governor's commitment to a vigorous effort by his very own commission to fight discrimination.

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