Virginia to Hear Bill that Would Allow Clerks to Refuse to Provide Marriage Licenses

Virginia’s SB 40 would allow clerks and deputy clerks in the state to refuse to issue marriage licenses “[i]f the clerk or deputy clerk has an objection to the issuance of such license on personal, ethical, moral, or religious grounds.” We all know that the couples most likely to be denied a license by clerks under this bill are same-sex couples.

The bill says that if the clerk denies to issue the license, a circuit court judge may issue one, or that the State Registrar of Vital Records through the Commissioner of Motor Vehicles will then step in an issue the license. But just how this will really work is not directly spelled out in the bill. Under SB 40, a couple seeking to be married could be denied a license at their local clerk’s office and then be forced to either track down a circuit court judge willing to grant them a license or head to Richmond to reapply for the license there. And, although the bill also says that the State Registrar will provide a process whereby couples can apply for marriage licenses at local DMVs, that process is not yet in place. And even if it were, most of us know that awaiting records at the local DMV is no picnic.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter what process the State Registrar puts into place, the effect of SB 40 is the same: it creates a two-tiered system of obtaining marriage licenses whereby government employees are allowed to discriminate against couples based on religious beliefs. Clerks and deputy clerks have taken an oath to carry out their duties of office; they should not be able to pick and choose which duties they will fulfill and which they will not. Allowing clerks to decide who to serve is tantamount to government-funded discrimination against couples who want to get married and spend their lives together. All of our friends and neighbors deserve to live with dignity and be treated fairly and equally.

The Virginia Senate Committee for Courts of Justice is scheduled to hear this bill this afternoon. We will continue to monitor the bill’s progress and urge legislators to oppose SB 40. Fortunately, Governor Terry McAuliffe has already vowed to veto the bill if it passes the General Assembly.

Elise Helgesen Aguilar

Elise Helgesen Aguilar is the Federal Legislative Counsel at Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Elise graduated cum laude from the University of Florida Law School in 2011. There, she was Executive Articles Editor for the Journal of Law and Public Policy as well as the founder and president of the University of Florida ACLU. After law school, Elise worked on voting rights and electoral reform as a Legal Fellow with FairVote. She also worked on successful Congressional campaigns in both Florida and Virginia. Elise graduated cum laude from the College of William and Mary in 2008 with a B.A. in Government. She is originally from Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.