Three Couples Suing Virginia Over Race Questions on Marriage License

Three Virginia couples have taken on the state in a federal lawsuit over a law requiring couples to list their race when applying for a marriage license. The 31-page complaint alleges that the couples were denied marriage licenses after refusing to identify their race.

The lawsuit contends that Virginia’s requirement uses “unscientific, highly controversial, misleading, useless, and tainted categories reflecting Virginia’s historical repression of non-white persons.”

The lawsuit, filed on September 5 in Alexandria, names the Virginia State Registrar and the Arlington and Rockbridge circuit clerks, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. One couple, Sophie Rogers and Brandyn Churchill were told by the Rockbridge Circuit Court clerk’s office that they would not receive their license if they refused to state their race.

The lawsuit claims Virginia’s marriage license race identification requirement is “offensive to human dignity, an invasion of personal privacy compelling an unwanted public categorization of oneself, and reflective of a racist past.”

Counties in the state also differ in the racial labels that they use. In Rockbridge County, for example, couples must choose from “approved races,” including “Aryan,” “Octoroon,” “Quadroon,” “Mestizo,” “Teutonic,” and “Mulatto,” the suit says.

“Fifty-two years after the Supreme Court struck down laws preventing the marriage of white and non-white persons, the Commonwealth of Virginia continues to require its residents, including plaintiffs, affirmatively to label themselves, against their will, according to categories rooted in a malignant statutory scheme working to the detriment of non-white persons,” the lawsuit contends.

It notes that Virginia is one of just eight states that require couples to state their race before they can marry. The other states are Connecticut, Delaware, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Minnesota. Court clerks in New Hampshire fill out information regarding couples’ races, while Alabama forces couples to complete a certificate “that requires a statement of their race,” according to NBC News.

“Although it’s not readily apparent why state law requires the collection of this data on the marriage license application, we will examine the complaint closely and carefully to determine how best to proceed,” Michael Kelly, a spokesman for Attorney General Mark Herring, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Herring is committed to equality and justice, Kelly maintained.

The challenged law has been on the books in some form since at least the 1920s, civil rights lawyer Victor M. Glasberg told the newspaper. Glasberg filed the lawsuit on behalf of Churchill and Rogers, Samuel Sarfo and Ashley Ramkishun, and Kendall Poole and Amelia Spencer.

According to the suit, the Virginia General Assembly created the Bureau of Vital Statistics in 1912. The bureau was led by Walter Plecker, who “made it his mission to secure proper enforcement of Virginia’s law banning the marriage of whites and non-whites.”

The suit maintains that the requirement reflects regulations from the Virginia Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which was originally called “An Act to Preserve the Integrity of the White Race.” In a letter to Governor Ralph Northam, the couples’ attorney referenced the Loving v. Virginia case of 1967, during which the Supreme Court struck down any laws banning interracial marriage, NBC News reported.

Richard and Mildred Loving were ripped from their bed in the middle of the night in 1958 after allegedly violating the Virginia Racial integrity Act of 1924. The interracial couple married legally in Washington D.C. but lived in Virginia. They were forced to move to D.C. to avoid prison time. However, a fateful letter written by Midred to Robert F. Kennedy in 1963 eventually took their case to the Supreme Court. The couple was represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

“In order to marry, plaintiffs, like the Lovings 61 years ago, must acquiesce in an unjustified, offensive and unconstitutional intrusion into their private lives, or, regardless of their desire to be married in Virginia, look elsewhere to get married,” the new lawsuit stated.

The couples are seeking “reasonable costs” in the suit, according to NBC News. Churchill and Rogers are also requesting that the court prevent their local clerk from denying their marriage license so they can get married in October.

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.