‘This needs to go’: Why couples challenged Virginia’s racial marriage license disclosure requirement

By: - October 18, 2019 12:03 am

Brandyn Churchill and Sophie Rogers were among three couples who successfully challenged Virginia’s requirement to disclose race in order to receive a marriage license. (Christophe Genty Photography)

This past Friday, Brandyn Churchill and Sophie Rogers got an early wedding present.

U.S. District Judge Rossie D. Alston, Jr. ruled Oct. 11 that state law requiring people seeking marriage licenses to disclose their race is not only offensive, but it’s also unconstitutional.  Rogers and Churchill comprised one of a handful of couples who sued the state over the requirement, which has its roots in Virginia anti-miscegenation laws.

“I am beyond ecstatic about the ruling,” said Ashley Ramkishun, who, with fiancé Samuel Sarfo, was one of the other couples who sued. “I am incredibly honored to have been part of this historic case. As a lawyer myself, I am humbled by the opportunity to make a positive change in our legal system. It is our duty, as a society, to change and move forward from past injustices and prejudices. This case proves our capability of changing past wrongs.”

The case — Rogers v. Virginia State Registrar — gained national attention, due mostly to the fact that a marriage license in Rockbridge County provides applicants an expansive list of racial options including outdated and racist terminology.

In an interview Monday night with the Mercury, Churchill said marriage preparations since the suit been a little different than planned. For their wedding Saturday, they’ve frequently consulted The Knot wedding planning book.

“They didn’t actually have a chapter in there about suing the state registrar, believe it or not,” Churchill said.

Neither Churchill nor Rogers are originally from Virginia, Churchill said, but both of them wanted to get married in the commonwealth.

Churchill is a graduate of Washington & Lee University and Rogers is currently a second-year law student there. Churchill, a Tennessee native, and Rogers, a Pennsylvania native, both fell in love with Virginia, along with each other. Prior to applying for a license, though, they got a bit of a surprise.

A Washington & Lee School of Law professor emailed students (including Rogers) and asked them if anyone was getting married soon, because a colleague was gearing up to challenge the outdated Virginia law required racial disclosures on marriage licenses.

Churchill and Rogers, both of whom are interested in public policy and how it can effect change, expressed interest in the case. Even with a heads-up, they were surprised at what they saw.

“We knew we were going to be presented with a list about racial identification categories,” Churchill said, “but we did not anticipate how incredibly offensive, at least in Rockbridge County, that list was.”

The list includes terms such as “Quadroon,” “Mulatto,” “Eskimoan,” “Gypsy,” “Hindu,” “Mohemadan,” but also “Scotch, Finnish, Teutonic and English,” among many others. Civil rights attorney Victor Glasberg was pursuing the case, and Churchill and Rogers joined on.

Race codes for use in self-identifying on the Rockbridge County marriage license application.

The case moved with dizzying rapidity, especially after national media outlets picked up the story. Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring issued a memorandum Sept. 30 saying that he interpreted the statue as saying people weren’t required to register their race on their marriage license.

While the response was encouraging, Glasberg and the plaintiffs were looking for something more permanent than an opinion. The next attorney general could easily issue a new interpretation and ruling on the statute.

The marriage forms were changed to allow applicants to decline to answer, at which point state attorneys requested the judge dismiss the lawsuit. Alston did not dismiss it, and made a more permanent ruling.

Churchill, who is currently working on his doctorate in economics at Vanderbilt, said he’s spoken with people in Virginia and elsewhere and they all tend to fall on the same side of the issue. He said liberal friends expressed disgust that this Jim Crow-era language was still being used. Friends on the right side of the spectrum, Churchill said, were additionally displeased that the government was asking for more information than was absolutely necessary.

“This was an issue, one of the few, where everyone could come together and say, ‘No, this needs to go. This is bad,’” Churchill said.

In court, state attorneys stated that Virginia doesn’t actually do anything with the racial data collected by the marriage forms, Alston wrote in his decision. Both Churchill and Glasberg were disappointed that the commonwealth worked so hard to fight for the outdated law.

“We’re pleased,” Glasberg said in a statement, “and the only unfortunate thing is that it took a United States district judge to strike down a statutory vestige of Jim Crow that the state of Virginia insisted on defending in court.”

Alston’s ruling serves as an examination of the issue and also a history of racial classification. He goes all the way back to 18th century Swedish scientist Carl Linnaeus, who divided humans into “Americanus, Asiaticus, Africanus, and Europeanus” based on skin color and traits.

From there, Alston briefly tracked how racial classification came to the United States and how it pervaded early laws in the country. The main legislation he examined was the Virginia Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which sought to prohibit white people from marrying anybody but a white person. As a result, people who were getting married were required to disclose their race on their marriage license.

A 1924 bulletin issued by Virginia’s Department of Health instructs agents in the proper way to register citizens with the Bureau of Vital Statistics. (Encyclopedia Virginia)

“Although defendants attempt to argue that the line connecting the statute at issue and the Racial Integrity Act of 1924 is not so clear, it is,” Alston wrote.

Alston noted that the General Assembly revised the state statute in 2003 to allow people to not make statements about their race, only to strike that language a year later.

Alston ruled that requiring people to disclose their race violates their fundamental right to marry guaranteed by the 14th Amendment, and is thus unconstitutional.

In his decision, Alston wrote that Virginia has a long, rich history — but noted that it is not without a “stain of past mistakes.”

Churchill, who attended Washington & Lee in 2010, has heard the Lexington community have tough conversations about the city, school and region’s history.

Virginians are reckoning with the darker corners of their state’s long history, and Churchill acknowledged that the couple’s lawsuit is a small part of that.

“All states have to come to terms with past injustices,” Churchill said. “Virginia, just because it has more past, has more injustices to come to terms with.”

This story has been updated to clarify Attorney General Mark Herring’s position on the lawsuit.

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Alex McCarthy
Alex McCarthy

Alex McCarthy is a freelance writer based in Roanoke. He grew up in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and graduated from Indiana University with degrees in journalism and history. After starting out in sportswriting, he moved to Juneau, Alaska, where he covered city hall, state government and the occasional bear story for the Juneau Empire. Contact him at [email protected]