Judge Overturns VA Marriage Law That Required Couples to Disclose Race

A federal judge has ruled that a Virginia law requiring couples to disclose their race when applying for a marriage license is unconstitutional.

The ruling comes after three couples sued the state following the denial of their marriage licenses after each couple refused to reveal their race. In their lawsuit, the couples claimed the race identification requirement on Virginia’s marriage license was “offensive to human dignity, an invasion of personal privacy compelling an unwanted public categorization of oneself, and reflective of a racist past.”

Judge Rossie D. Alston ruled the Virginia law was in violation of the 14th Amendment. Alston wrote that requiring couples “to disclose their race in order to receive marriage licenses burdens their fundamental right to marry.” The judge added the rule was a “vestige of the nation’s and of Virginia’s history of codified racialization.”

“The Commonwealth of Virginia is naturally rich in its greatest traditions,” Alston wrote. "But like other institutions, that stain of past mistakes, misgivings, and discredited legislative mandates must always survive the scrutiny of our nation’s most important institution… The Constitution of the United States of America.”

The ruling is one of Alston’s first opinions as a federal judge after being elevated to the bench in August, according to The Washington Post.

In September, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring instructed the state registrar that applicants would no longer need to disclose their race when applying for a marriage license.

Herring wrote a memorandum to the director and state registrar of the Division of Vital Records stating that the rule “does not require a clerk to refuse to issue a marriage license when the applicant declines to identify his or her race, and that clerks should issue a license regardless of an applicant’s answer or non-answer to that inquiry.”

The three couples suing the state moved forward with their lawsuit despite the rule change. The couples argued that Herring’s directive could be eliminated once out of office because the law remained in place, CNN reported.

“The provision in the statue is still intact, so the announcement does not necessarily solve the problem,” said plaintiff Ashley Ramkishun. “It’s merely a Band-Aid.”

Alston agreed, writing that Herring “provided a construction of the statute that is expressly at odds with its plain meaning.” The judge added that although clerks promised to uphold Herring’s directive, they were still obliged to “uphold the statute, and General Herring’s interpretation lacks the force of law.”

The plaintiffs’ attorney Victor M. Glasberg told reporters they were happy with the judge’s ruling. “We’re very pleased, of course,” Glasberg told The Washington Post. “The only unfortunate part is that it took a United States district judge to strike a Jim Crow provision that the state of Virginia insisted on defending in court.”

Michael K. Kelly, a spokesman for the Virginia Office of the Attorney General, told The Washington Post the judge’s decision was “consistent with [Attorney General] Herring’s recent memo to the State Registrar noting that ‘any statue requiring a governmental official to deny a marriage license to an applicant who declines to provide information about his or her race would raise serious constitutional questions.'”

Virginia was one of eight states that required couples to disclose their race before they could receive a marriage license. The list of states that still asks for couples to identify their race includes Connecticut, Delaware, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Minnesota.

In New Hampshire, court clerks are required to fill out information about a couple’s race. Meanwhile, Alabama forces couples to complete a certificate “that requires a statement of their race,” NBC News reported.

Virginia is no stranger to being sued for its history of racist marriage laws. The most widely known example is the Loving v. Virginia decision in 1967.

Richard and Mildred Loving were pulled from their bed in the middle of the night in 1958 after being accused of violating the Virginia Racial Integrity Act of 1924. The interracial couple legally married in Washington, DC but lived in Virginia. They were then forced to move back to DC in order to avoid prison time in Virginia.

In 1963, Mildred wrote a letter to Robert F. Kennedy that would alter their lives and impact interracial couples around the country. The American Civil Liberties Union represented the couple in the case before the Supreme Court, which struck down any laws that banned interracial marriage in 1967.


About the Author

Nicole Rojas is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has published in various publications, including Newsweek, GlobalPost, IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, and the Long Island Post. Nicole graduated from Boston University in 2012 with a degree in print journalism. She is an avid world traveler who recently explored Asia and Australia.