Virginia couples sue state for requiring race question on marriage applications
By Sean Galvin
September 11, 2019

Three couples filed a lawsuit in Alexandria’s federal court last Thursday, saying rules requiring marriage license applicants to identify their race are unconstitutional. 

The plaintiffs in the case are three couples who plan to marry in Virginia in the upcoming months: Brandyn Churchill and Sophie Rogers, Ashley Ramkishun and Samuel Sarfo, and Amelia Spencer and Kendall Poole. All three couples applied for marriage licenses in Virginia, but clerks refused their requests when they declined to list their race, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reports.

Victor M. Glasberg, a civil rights lawyer in Alexandria, filed the suit against the Virginia State Registrar and the clerks of the Arlington and Rockbridge circuits.

In a letter to Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, Glasberg stated that the requirement is a remnant of Jim Crow-era laws. 

Glasberg also told the New York Times that the law infringes on free speech because “the government cannot compel you to say things you don’t want to say unless there’s abundant good reason for it.”

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are accusing the clerks of enforcing the law “as they see fit, using inappropriate categories duly made available by the Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, and other, more offensive, categories as well.”

Virginia is one of only eight states in the U.S. currently requiring couples to state their race when applying for a marriage license. While each county is required to ask applicants for their race, they can decide how exactly they pose the question. The results have led to some questionable language on official government documents.

For example, the Rockbridge Circuit Court’s form includes outdated terms now widely considered offensive such as “Octoroon,” “Moor,” and “Mulatto.” In Alexandria, meanwhile, there are no categories for Latino or Pacific Islander.

The suit states the requirement to identify race uses language that is not based on science but on “ignorance and bigotry.” The requirements, which Glasberg says the state established in the 1920s, are made more troubling by the fact that Virginia had laws banning interracial marriage as recently as 1967.

Michael Kelly, a spokesman for Attorney General Herring, told the Washington Post that they “will examine the complaint closely and carefully to determine how best to proceed.”

Glasberg said he hopes that Herring and his office will choose not to defend the law and will instead admit to its unconstitutionality. If that happens, the state could be barred from enforcing the law, allowing the couples to obtain marriage licenses without having to state their race.

You can read more about this story over at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

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