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Bill would ban question about race from Delaware marriage license application

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Marriage license applicants in Delaware are asked for their race when they appear at their county’s marriage bureau. This is screen shot of the computerized template that clerks fill out. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

Marriage license applicants in Delaware are asked for their race when they appear at their county’s marriage bureau. This is screen shot of the computerized template that clerks fill out. (Cris Barrish/WHYY)

Couples getting hitched in Delaware have long been required by law to list their race when applying for their marriage license.

But new legislation aims to scrap that law.

State Sen. Bryan Townsend realized in September that Delaware was one of a handful of states with such a provision when he read a New York Times article about a Virginia lawsuit filed by couples denied licenses because they wouldn’t disclose their race.

A federal judge quickly ruled Virginia’s law unconstitutional, and Townsend decided to change Delaware’s law too.

State Sen. Bryan Townsend says it’s past time for race to be eliminated from the form. (State of Delaware)

“Historically, I think it was not there for the right reason. I think it comes from an era where people of different races weren’t allowed to marry,” said Townsend, a Newark-area Democrat.

He noted that, while a ban on interracial marriages in America was ruled unconstitutional in a 1967 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, until the 1980s Delaware still had a law on its books banning “marriage between a white person and a Negro or mulatto.”

“I think it’s a part of our past that’s best left in the past. It’s not germane to the marriage license. So let’s clean it up in Delaware. Let’s pass the law [as soon as possible] and move forward,’’ Townsend told WHYY.

State Rep. Kendra Johnson, a Democrat whose district encompasses parts of the Bear and New Castle areas, is sponsoring the measure in the House.

“It’s a big deal, if you happen to be the person who’s completing that marriage license and you actually pay attention to it, and you see that someone is asking you for your race during one of the happiest times of your life,” Johnson said. “And you know, ouch, what does that feel like?”

New Castle County Clerk of the Peace Ken Boulden says a person’s race is not relevant to their marriage application. (New Castle County)

Delaware’s marriage bureaus are not opposed to the change.

New Castle County Clerk of the Peace Ken Boulden has run the county marriage bureau for nearly a quarter century. He supports the change and has ordered his clerks not to pose the question to applicants starting Jan. 1.

“With the diversity that we are, the melting pot that we are, we are all a mix of something, we are a blend of something,’’ Boulden told WHYY.

“And why is it even relevant? It’s time we stopped recording that data and asking those questions. My staff is uncomfortable and most of all, most importantly probably, I don’t want to make couples uncomfortable.”

Boulden pointed out that Delaware’s form lets people opt out of disclosing their race, and that  a person’s race does not appear on the marriage license itself.

State officials said they prepare a statistical report annually, based on the responses, but will  implement any changes made by lawmakers.

The bill is scheduled for a hearing before the Senate committee hearing on Jan. 15. Townsend said he expects the bill to sail through the General Assembly.

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