Washington and Lee couple wins fight against Jim Crow-era racial law in Virginia

A federal judge ruled that it’s unconstitutional for Virginia to require couples to list their race on their marriage license


Churchill and Rodgers at a vineyard for their engagement photos. Photo courtesy of Christophe Genty.

Elizabeth Bell

A Washington and Lee couple, who fought to change a Virginia law that requires couples to disclose their race on their marriage license application, is getting married on Saturday — and they didn’t have to disclose their race to get their marriage license.

A  federal judge ruled on Friday that a Virginia law requiring couples to disclose their race on their marriage license application is unconstitutional and violates the Fourteenth Amendment.

The ruling was made after Brandyn Churchill, 27, and Sophie Rogers, 22, along with two couples in Arlington County who were denied marriage licenses for not disclosing their race, filed a federal lawsuit on Sept. 5.

The new marriage license for the Commonwealth of Virginia has a “decline to answer” option for race.

Rogers is a second-year student at the Washington and Lee University School of Law. Churchill graduated from Washington and Lee in 2014 and is now a doctoral student at Vanderbilt University.

“I’m just honored we could play a small part in striking down an outdated and racist law,” Churchill tweeted on October 11. “The credit really is to our fantastic attorney (Victor Glasberg) who has been looking at this issue for 30 years.”

Churchill and Rogers said they were shocked by the list of races provided by the clerk’s office in Rockbridge County when they tried to apply for a marriage license for their October 19 wedding that will be held in Fincastle, Va.

State law required them to choose their race from the county’s three-page list of races that included terms like “Aryan,” “Hindu,” “Islamic,” “Mulatto” and “Octaroon.”

Read Rockbridge County’s old list of race codes

“We asked to see a list of the acceptable races and that’s when they gave us that horrendously long list with all of those terrible options, and it was just horrifying and shocking,” Rogers said in an interview.

Now, when couples apply for a marriage license, they can select a “declined to answer” box instead of disclosing their race. The Rockbridge Circuit Court clerk’s office will also allow couples to write in whatever race they identify as, instead of requiring them to choose from the previous list of options.

Requiring couples “to disclose their race in order to receive a marriage license violates their fundamental right to marry,” Judge Rossie D. Alston wrote in his ruling.

A view of the Washington and Lee University School of Law. Photo by Elizabeth Bell.

Rogers and Churchill became involved in the lawsuit through a professor at the Washington and Lee School of Law, who knows Victor Glasberg, the attorney representing all three couples.

This lawsuit, which was filed 50 years after the U.S. Supreme Court declared Virginia’s laws against interracial marriage unconstitutional, challenged a law that enabled Virginia to enforce its interracial marriage ban.

The Virginia Racial Integrity Act of 1924, which requires applicants to label their race on their marriage license, reflects “Virginia’s historical repression of non-white persons,” the lawsuit says.

The law is a remnant of “the nation’s and of Virginia’s history of codified racialization,” Alston wrote in his ruling.

“There’s no reason why this law should still be in effect in 2019,” Rogers said. “It’s a remnant of Jim Crow, and it’s a disgrace that Virginia still maintains it.”

Couples in seven other states are required to disclose their race on their marriage application. Connecticut, Delaware, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, New Hampshire and Alabama have laws similar to Virginia.

“It would be fantastic if other states that are in this position follow suit,” Rogers said. “I think broadly it’s just good to continue the conversations that we’ve been having about racial discrimination and how to end that.”

While Virginia now allows applicants to choose whether to list their race and whether they identify as a “bride,” “groom,” or “spouse,” there is no “declined to answer” box that allows applicants to opt out of identifying their sex.