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3 couples suing Virginia after being denied marriage licenses because they refused to disclose their race

Posted at 11:14 AM, Sep 10, 2019
and last updated 2019-09-10 17:33:43-04

Three couples are suing the state of Virginia to overturn a law that requires marriage applicants to disclose their race in order to get a marriage license.

"The requirement to identify by 'race' uses terms grounded in ignorance and bigotry, not in science," the couples' lawsuit says, and it reflects "Virginia's historical repression of non-white persons."

The lawsuit, filed in a federal court on Thursday, says Virginia's requirement is unconstitutional.

The couples all were denied marriage licenses in the state after refusing to designate their race on an application.

The Virginia Department of Health, which includes the office that issues marriage licenses, declined to comment because of pending litigation.

Gov. Ralph Northam's office also declined to comment on the lawsuit, citing pending litigation. The governor "is dedicated to addressing racial discrimination in all its forms, and recently established a commission to examine the vestiges of racially discriminatory language in Virginia law," his office said in a statement.

Some forms use outdated and offensive terms

When Brandyn Churchill and his fiancée, Sophie Rogers, one of the couples suing the state, went to apply for a license in Rockbridge County for their October 19 wedding, they were given a list of 230 terms to choose from to identify their race.

The list included the outdated terms "mulatto," and "quadroon," Churchill said.

"We were stunned," he said. "We knew we were going to get a list, we didn't know what that list would look like."

The lawsuit describes Churchill as having "English, Scottish and German" ancestry and "peach-pink skin." Rogers is "principally Irish, German and Polish and she has peach-pink skin," the lawsuit says.

Churchill said he and Rogers refused to select one of the options provided for their race and were told that the computer system wouldn't accept their application without it.

"We are mindful of the fact that some people would say collecting information on race is important to correcting disparities ... we just think the state shouldn't compel you to do that," he said.

The couple plans to celebrate their wedding next month with or without a marriage license, but he thinks officials will act before then.

"I think they're going to look at this law and realize it has no place in 2019 and discard it and move forward into the 21st century," he said.

'None of those boxes fit me'

The current requirement is a vestige of Virginia's racist history, the lawsuit says, and is born out of the state's 1924 "Act to Preserve Racial Integrity." The law was meant to ensure that whites and non-whites did not marry. It was championed by Walter Plecker, the state's first head of vital statistics and an advocate of eugenics.

The data on races collected by the State of Virginia through marriage licenses is not used in any data sharing capacity, the lawsuit said.

Virginia also was the site of the landmark Loving v. Virginia case that challenged the law that prevented interracial marriage in the state. The case landed in the Virginia Supreme Court and the justices decided unanimously on June 12, 1967 that the purpose of miscegenation laws was rooted in racism and violated the Constitution.

"After finding out about this, it's like what is really happening behind the scenes," said Samuel Sarfo. "Has Virginia really changed that much from where it came from?"

Sarfo and his fiancee, Ashley Ramkishun, also are plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

Ramkishun says having to identify as one race or mixed doesn't express the complexity of her background, which includes Guyanese and Indian roots.

She identifies as a West Indian or Caribbean and found the available choices -- American Indian/Alaska Native, African-American/Black, Asian, Caucasian, Hispanic/Latino, Pacific Islander, White and other -- too limiting.

"None of those boxes fit me," Ramkishun said. When they expressed their concerns, she and Sarfo were told they could mark "other."

"I'm not other," Ramkishun said.