RICHMOND, Va. – The ACLU of Virginia filed an amicus brief today in support of Connor Bleakley and Sami Alsawaf seeking to allow Brandon Bleakley to perform the rites of their wedding ceremony, arguing that the Virginia code sections that govern their choice of officiant is unconstitutional.
Connor Bleakely and Sami Alsawaf are planning to hold a wedding ceremony on April 29, 2023 in Albemarle County, Virginia. They are not religious, and they do not wish to be married in a religious ceremony.
Yet the Virginia Code sets out explicitly different rules for people wishing to be married in Virginia based on whether they or their officiant is religious. Three sections of Virginia Code authorize a person to conduct a marriage ceremony: one, Virginia Code § 20-26, governs people who are “members of a religious society having no minister;” another, Virginia Code § 20-23, governs officiants who are “minister(s);” and the third, Virginia Code § 20-25, governs officiants with no religious affiliation.
Because neither Bleakley and Alsawaf nor their chosen officiant, Brandon Bleakley, are religious, their ceremony would be governed by the third section of Virginia Code. Virginia Code 20-25 requires “persons other than ministers who may perform rites” to post a $500 bond and be authorized by a judge in whose circuit they live to perform the ceremony – amounting to a requirement that the officiant be a resident of the Commonwealth.
These are plainly more stringent requirements than those applied to religious ceremonies under Virginia Code 20-26 and 20-23. And they are ones that Connor Bleakley and Sami Alsawaf’s chosen officiant and only sibling, Brandon Bleakley – who is a resident of New York – cannot meet.
If Brandon Bleakley were a religious minister, Virginia law would authorize his appointment even as a non-Virginia resident: he would fall under Virginia Code 20-23. The fact that Virginia Code 20-25 sets out a more restrictive set of rules for non-religious wedding ceremonies than religious ones makes it unconstitutional under the First and Fourteenth Amendments. Its discrimination against out-of-state wedding celebrants in favor of Virginia citizens also renders the law unconstitutional under the Privileges and Immunities Clause of Article IV of the Constitution.
The ACLU of Virginia filed a motion seeking leave to file an amicus curiae brief in the Circuit Court for the city of Richmond in support of Connor Bleakley and Sami Alsawaf calling on the court to strike down the fee and residency requirements in Virginia Code 20-25 as unconstitutional.
It would not be the first Virginia circuit court to find the code unconstitutional: in the 2013 ACLU of Virginia lawsuit In re Dhanoa, the court found that the $500 bond requirement is “clearly unconstitutional.” Ruling on behalf of four members of the Sikh faith whose religious faith required them to perform the rites of marriage not with one officiant, but jointly, the court further held that “the General Assembly cannot favor one type of religion over another without a compelling government interest and a narrowly tailored method.”
A hearing is scheduled for In re Bleakley for January 17, 2023.