An Orange County teacher with AIDS, barred from his classroom by school officials, will be returning to work in the next few days under an order issued Wednesday by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
After learning about the court's ruling, Orange County Supt. of Schools Robert Peterson said Vincent Chalk will resume his teaching duties as soon as possible.
"We want him back," Peterson said. "We certainly had no animosity or lack of compassion for Mr. Chalk. He is a fine teacher."
Paul L. Hoffman, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney in Los Angeles who represented Chalk, called Wednesday's decision "probably the most important AIDS case in the country because it is the first appellate ruling."
Hoffman said the court's decision will affect hundreds of thousands of teachers, hospital workers and others across the country because states usually take their lead from federal decisions on issues like this.
"It sends an absolutely clear message to every recipient of federal funds that they are not entitled to exclude people with AIDS," he said.
Peterson said he expects no trouble from parents of the hearing-impaired children in Chalk's classes because many parents have publicly expressed support for Chalk during his legal battle.
"He is a very good teacher, and the parents of the students he teaches like him very much," Peterson said.
Chalk, reached at his parents' home in New Mexico, said he was "real happy with the decision.
"I'm excited, I can't wait to go back," he said.
He said he is "feeling fine" and ready to resume his duties as regional occupational program coordinator for deaf junior high and high school students. Chalk, 42, had been teaching about 30 students at two schools in Irvine, University High School and Venado Middle School.
Since school began in September, Chalk has been assigned to a desk job in the department headquarters and was forbidden to contact his students.
He won the right to return to the classroom after the three-judge appellate panel unanimously ruled in his favor.
Wednesday's order states: " . . . The casual contact incident to the performance of his teaching duties in the classroom presents no significant risk of harm to others, and that although handicapped, because of AIDS, appellant (Chalk) is otherwise qualified to perform his job . . . . "
The judges also said that preventing Chalk from resuming his "classroom occupation subjects him to irreparable injury."
Attorneys for the Orange County Education Department had argued to the appellate court that Chalk posed a potential risk to his students because physicians do not fully understand how AIDS is transmitted.
At issue was whether a 1973 federal law that protects handicapped workers from discrimination also protects people with acquired immune deficiency syndrome.
In March, the U.S. Supreme Court found that a Florida teacher with tuberculosis was covered as long as she did not pose a "significant risk" to others. The court also said the risk must be based on "medically sound judgments." Although AIDS was not mentioned specifically, many attorneys believed that the ruling applied to people with AIDS and other ailments.
Chalk's legal battle began in August when the Orange County Department of Education filed a suit against him in Orange County Superior Court seeking court advice on the AIDS matter. The case was later transferred to federal court in Los Angeles, where Chalk filed his own suit to regain his teaching position.
Times staff writer Bill Billiter contributed to this story.