COMMENTARY: Virginia statute finally declared unconstitutional


By Marie E. Matyjaszek

No matter how much this nation moves forward in an attempt to treat everyone equally, reminders are present that prejudicial laws and beliefs remain. As a case in point, three Virginia couples recently applied for marriage licenses, and were denied because they refused to check a box defining their individual race.

While the form provided 230 options for an individual's race, some of the terms used were antiquated and offensive. In September 2019, Virginia's Attorney General Mark Herring advised citizens that it had been updated, with an option to decline to state your race, avoiding the potential for couples to be denied a marriage license. However, the new form did nothing to invalidate the law requiring race identification.

The couples continued the lawsuit, noting that while the AG's actions were helpful, they were merely a "Band-Aid" over the larger problem. When Herring was no longer AG, his replacement could void the edict. The bigoted law existed in an attempt to preserve the racist ideology that people must marry within their own race. The lawsuit argued that the race identification requirement stemmed from Virginia's 1924 Act to Preserve Racial Integrity.

On October 11, 2019, federal Judge Rossie Alston ruled that the law was unconstitutional and violated the 14th Amendment. Despite the AG's direction and new form, clerks still had an obligation to uphold the law as long as it was still valid. By ruling the law unconstitutional, this voided any obligation for a clerk or anyone else to follow it. The court noted that while Virginia had great traditions, there remained "stains of past mistakes" which did not align with the Constitution.

It took far too long for this law to be overturned, but any step forward is a positive one.


Marie E. Matyjaszek is an attorney referee at the Washtenaw County Friend of the Court; however, the views expressed in this column are her own. Her blog site is: She can be reached by e-mailing her at

Published: Fri, Nov 15, 2019