The U.S. Department of Justice has declared that Tennessee’s long-standing aggravated prostitution law is in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. They have completed an investigation and have warned the state that they could face legal action if they do not stop enforcing the law immediately.
Tennessee is the sole state in the US that enforces a permanent registration as a “violent sex offender” for individuals found guilty of engaging in sex work while living with HIV, regardless of their awareness of the disease’s transmissibility.
Advocates for LGBTQ+ and civil rights have extensively denounced the policy as discriminatory, citing the severe limitations it places on housing and job opportunities for those with a history of violent sexual offenses. In recent months, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Transgender Law Center have taken legal action by filing a lawsuit in federal court with the goal of overturning the law.
The Friday report from the department is unrelated to the current legal case.
The department is urging the state to cease enforcing the law and to also eliminate the names of those found guilty under the statute from the sex offender registry, as well as clear their convictions. Additionally, the agency recommends that Gov. Bill Lee propose a bill to overturn the law.
The ADA, a significant federal law passed in 1990, prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in various areas such as employment, parking, and voting. According to the ADA, HIV and AIDS are recognized as disabilities as they significantly impede daily activities.
According to Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke from the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, Tennessee’s current aggravated prostitution law is antiquated, lacks scientific backing, deters testing, and perpetuates the marginalization of individuals living with HIV. Clarke states that it is unfair to label those with HIV as violent sex offenders for their entire lives simply because of their HIV status.
The letter from the department was directed towards Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti, Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Director David Rausch, and Shelby County District Attorney Steven Mulroy.
The county of Shelby, which includes Memphis, was designated due to the Department of Justice stating it is where the law has been implemented most often.
According to a representative, Mulroy acknowledged that the accusations relate to cases that were dealt with prior to his assumption of office in September 2022. Mulroy expressed his support for the Justice Department’s conclusions and stated that his office is actively cooperating.
“We acknowledge the findings of the DOJ and will take them into consideration. We are also eager to learn more about the DOJ’s potential collaboration with local activist groups and private individuals in regards to this issue,” stated Brandon James Smith, chief of staff for Skrmetti.
An email requesting comment was sent to Skrmetti’s spokesperson, but there has been no immediate response.
In Tennessee, prostitution has been deemed a misdemeanor for a long time. However, in 1991, during the AIDS epidemic that caused fear and widespread misinformation about prevention, lawmakers in Tennessee passed a law that made aggravated prostitution a felony. This law only applied to sex workers who were living with HIV. In 2010, the law was changed to classify this offense as a “violent sexual offense,” which meant that those found guilty would have to register as lifetime sex offenders.
According to court records, over 80 individuals are listed as charged with aggravated prostitution in Tennessee.
The letter from the DOJ outlines the challenges faced by individuals with aggravated prostitution convictions. Being registered as a lifetime sex offender can prevent them from seeing their grandchildren, cause job offers to be revoked, and greatly restrict their housing choices. One individual revealed that they were not allowed to take a course to obtain their GED because there may be children present in the building.
The plaintiffs who initiated a legal case to prevent the aggravated prostitution law in October stated that the letter from the DOJ adds to their cause.
Four individuals and OUTMemphis, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting LGBTQ+ individuals, filed the lawsuit.
Molly Quinn, executive director of OUTMemphis, released a statement expressing support for the Department of Justice’s conclusion that Tennessee’s aggravated prostitution law unfairly discriminates against individuals with HIV. She also mentioned that OUTMemphis is currently taking legal action to challenge this law and believes it is imperative to put an end to HIV criminalization, whether through a formal resolution or court decision.
The report from Memphis, Tennessee was contributed to by Associated Press writer Adrian Sainz.