Virginia Marriage License Applicants No Longer Have to Disclose Race

Virginia’s attorney general announced that couples who are seeking a marriage license in the state will no longer have to disclose their race after three couples filed a lawsuit earlier this month challenging the state’s law.

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring told the Richmond Times-Dispatch on September 13 that the Division of Vital Records revised the marriage certificates so it is clear that applicants will not have to disclose their race and can decline to answer the question on the application for a marriage license. Clerks were notified about the rule change by the Virginia Supreme Court’s Office of the Executive Secretary.

In a memorandum to Janet Rainey, the director and state registrar of the Division of Vital Records, obtained by the newspaper, Herring wrote that the law “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 statute plainly requires a question about race be asked. But no provision of the statute expressly requires the couple to identify their race or says what happens if they decline to do so,” Herring continued.

In the memorandum, Herring wrote that “any statute 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,” according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

The attorney general’s decision comes just a few days after three couples from Virginia filed a 31-page lawsuit that alleged they were each denied marriage licenses after refusing to identify their race. The complaint, which was filed on September 5, states that one couple, Brandyn Churchill and Sophie Rogers, were told by the Rockbridge Circuit Court clerk’s office they would not obtain their license because they did not disclose their race.

The suit alleges the rule is “using unscientific, highly controversial, misleading, useless, and tainted categories reflecting Virginia’s historical repression of non-white persons.” Virginia is not the only state that enforces this law, as Connecticut, Delaware, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Minnesota also require couples to identify their race. States like New Hampshire make couples fill out information on the application about their race while Alabama forces couples to complete a certificate “that requires a statement of their race,” NBC News previously reported.

In the state of Virginia, counties also differ in racial labels they use on the form. In Rockbridge County, couples must select from “approved races,” like “Mulatto,” “Aryan,” “Octoroon,” among others, according to the lawsuit viewed by The North Star.

“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 states.

The lawsuit cites the Loving v. Virginia decision in 1967, a case originating in the state of Virginia that led the Supreme Court to strike down any laws banning interracial marriage. Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple, were awoken in the middle of the night in 1958 for allegedly violating the Virginia Racial Integrity Act of 1924. Although they were married in Washington, DC and lived in Virginia, they were forced to move to DC so they wouldn’t be arrested and placed in jail.

“Since plaintiffs refuse to designate their “race” on the mandatory marriage license application, their local circuit court has, in accordance with state law, denied them a license to marry. As a result, 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, as most states do not require racial identification on a marriage license application,” the suit states.

Herring told the Richmond Times-Dispatch he was “happy to help quickly resolve this issue and get these couples what they asked for.”

“These changes will ensure that no Virginian will be forced to label themselves in order to get married,” he told the newspaper in a statement. “I appreciate the courage these couples showed in raising this issue, and I wish them all the best in their lives together.”

About the Author

Maria Perez is a breaking news writer for The North Star. She has an M.A. in Urban Reporting from the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. She has been published in various venues, including Newsweek, Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, City Limits, and local newspapers like The Wave and The Home Reporter.