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Virginia couples won’t have to disclose their race to get a marriage license, attorney general says

Couples applying for marriage licenses in Virginia will no longer have to disclose their race, the state’s attorney general said, after three couples said they were denied marriage licenses after declining to do so.

Applicants will now be able to check a box on the form that says, “declined to answer,” a spokesman from Attorney General Mark Herring’s office said Sunday.

Clerks of court across Virginia received the new form and a memo, said Herring’s spokesman. The memo states that “clerks should issue a license regardless of an applicant’s answer or non-answer to that inquiry.”

“We were happy to help quickly resolve this issue and get these couples what they asked for,” Herring said in a statement. “These changes will ensure that no Virginian will be forced to label themselves in order to get married. I appreciate the courage these couples showed in raising this issue, and I wish them all the best in their lives together.”

Herring’s new guidance was sent out after three couples sued the state to overturn the statute, which asked marriage applicants to disclose their race in order to get a marriage license.

The lawsuit alleges the requirement is unconstitutional and a remnant of the state’s racist history. That requirement, it says, was born out of the state’s 1924 “Act to Preserve Racial Integrity,” which was meant to ensure that whites and non-whites did not marry.

“The requirement to identify by ‘race’ uses terms grounded in ignorance and bigotry, not in science,” the lawsuit says, adding that it reflects “Virginia’s historical repression of non-white persons.”

‘It’s merely a Band-Aid’

But the couples are moving forward with the lawsuit anyway because the statute is still Virginia law, despite Herring’s new guidance.

“Yes, we still plan to move forward with the suit,” said Ashley Ramkishun, who said she was initially denied a marriage license after she and her fiance, Samuel Sarfo, did not disclose their races.

She identifies as West Indian or Caribbean and felt that none of the options available on the form adequately captured the complexity of her background. She was told to mark “other,” but said, “I’m not other.”

“The provision in the statute is still intact so the announcement does not necessarily solve the problem,” Ramkishun told CNN Sunday. “It’s merely a Band-Aid.”

Brandyn Churchill and his fiancee, Sophie Rogers, were denied a license for their wedding in October, they said. They were provided with a list of 230 terms to choose from to identify their race, including outdated terms like “mulatto” and “quadroon.”

“We believe that the AG’s guidance is a welcome first step,” Churchill said Sunday. “However, we will continue to challenge the constitutionality of the statute, so that the decision cannot be reversed by a change of position or Attorney General.”

He added that he’s heard from several state legislators hoping to strike the law from the Virginia code during the next legislative session.

Herring’s office did not immediately respond Sunday when asked about the couples’ intention to move forward with the lawsuit.

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