AIDS activists were outraged Wednesday over the rejection of an anti-discrimination ordinance by the Orange County Board of Supervisors and expressed concern that landlords and employers may now think they can discriminate against people carrying the disease.
"I think that, unfortunately, it sends the wrong message to people in Orange County--that it might even be OK to discriminate against people with HIV (human immunodeficiency virus, which causes AIDS)," said John Duran, an Anaheim attorney active in the gay community. "I won't be surprised to see an increase in HIV discrimination because of this vote."
Defeat of the ordinance may also discourage people with AIDS from being tested or getting medical help, AIDS experts and gay community leaders said Wednesday.
"People will die because the supervisors rejected this ordinance," said Werner Kuhn, executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center of Orange County. "People will be afraid to go in and get tested and will continue to be afraid to get care. Those are very real fears because the discrimination is very real."
Supervisors on Tuesday voted 3 to 2 against a proposed ordinance that would prohibit discrimination in housing, employment and county services against people carrying the virus for acquired immune deficiency syndrome. The measure would have applied only to the unincorporated areas of the county.
Proponents of the ordinance said its passage would have strengthened federal and state laws that already forbid discrimination against people who have AIDS or the HIV infection.
"I'm afraid this sends the wrong message to the average citizen in Orange County that discrimination against people who have AIDS-related illnesses is OK," said Dr. Don Hagan, a member of the county's HIV advisory committee. "That is the one thing we wanted to prevent the most. I don't think we ever would have brought this to the board if we thought it would have failed."
Orange County's gay and lesbian community blamed a campaign by a vocal lobby of conservative Christians and statements by Rep. William E. Dannemeyer (R-Fullerton) for turning the supervisors' discussion of the ordinance into an attack on the gay life style.
"In Orange County, we have one of the most vocal fundamentalist groups, and they're very loud," said Dr. Drew Barras, co-chairman of ECCO, the Election Committee of the County of Orange, a political action committee that supports gay rights issues. "Dannemeyer's statements at that meeting had nothing to do with health. His statements had absolutely everything to do with gay bashing," he said.
Dannemeyer and representatives of the Rev. Louis P. Sheldon's Anaheim-based Traditional Values Coalition attended the supervisors' meeting Tuesday to voice their opposition.
"The community is just in an uproar," said Jeff LeTourneau, co-chair of the Orange County Visibility League, a gay and lesbian activist group. "There's been an outpouring of anger."
Kuhn said the center in Garden Grove has received many calls from people outraged about the supervisors' vote. "And not just from gay people. Gay and straight people alike wonder, 'How can they do this?"' he said.
As of April 30, 1,049 people in Orange County have contracted AIDS, according to the county's HIV Advisory Committee. Of that number, 614 have died.
Experts say there are several laws that now protect people with AIDS or the HIV infection from discrimination, but activists complain they are sometimes inadequate and that the complaint process takes so long that the people alleging discrimination often die before their case is heard.
The Federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits discrimination against handicapped individuals by federal agencies, federal contractors and their suppliers. Two years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that people with communicable diseases are protected by that law. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals went a step further the same year to define AIDS specifically as a handicap in a case involving Irvine teacher Vincent Chalk.
California's Fair Employment and Housing Act essentially extends the same protection to all employees with a few exceptions--notably, those working for nonprofit corporations and religious associations.
AIDS activists said the problem with that act is that a complainant must get permission from the state before filing a civil lawsuit seeking damages, a process that can take up to five months.
"Some people die before they ever find out whether they have the right to sue," Duran said. "Others (who have lost jobs) have health benefits put into jeopardy" during the waiting process, he said.
The Orange County ordinance would have allowed alleged victims of AIDS discrimination to sue immediately, as do at least some of the similar measures passed in Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Riverside and Alameda counties.
The courts have classified AIDS as a handicap but have yet to decide whether someone carrying the HIV virus--but who doesn't have AIDS--would be granted the same protection as someone with the disease.
Ordinances in Los Angeles County and other areas also guarantee that employers and landlords may not discriminate against those who have the HIV infection but do not have symptoms of AIDS.
Spokesmen for several Orange County employers said that they do not have written policies regarding the treatment of employees with AIDS but that all such employees are treated fairly.
"We do not consider a positive AIDS test to be reason for any type of restriction on the work of that employee," said Scott Rayburn, a spokesman for Hughes Aircraft Co. in Fullerton.
"The presence or absence of an AIDS anti-discrimination ordinance would have no impact whatsoever on how we act," said Richard Foster, president of Interstate Electronics in Anaheim. "We treat this with compassion and privacy."