The long counter in the clerk's office of the Alexandria Circuit Courthouse, traditionally a backdrop for grim-faced lawyers, has in recent weeks begun to look more like the set for an episode of "Love Boat."
Since July 1, when Virginia waived its blood test requirement for couples applying for marriage licenses, the young, the restless and the ready have descended on the courthouse in droves. There they take advantage of a streamlined system that has transformed the task of procuring a license and getting married into a tidy lunch-hour event.
"It's my father's birthday. I want to get married TODAY," said Elizabeth Kapp, 22, as she filled out the application form. Kapp and her fiance, Randolph Scott, 24, had driven down that morning from New Jersey, stopping first in Elkton, Md., which they had heard was the spot for a quick marriage.
Officials in Elkton explained that Maryland requires a 48-hour wait between obtaining the marriage license and performing the ceremony, and then sent the couple on to Alexandria. By about 2:30 p.m., an hour after they had arrived, Kapp and Scott had changed into their wedding outfits and become husband and wife.
According to Alexandria deputy court clerk Norma Cunningham, the number of applicants for marriage licenses in Alexandria has gone up to as many as 28 in one day, double the number before the blood test rule -- designed to detect syphilis -- was dropped. "If this keeps up we'll become the elopement capital of the East Coast," Cunningham said, shaking her head as a new rush of blushing would-be brides and bridegrooms arrived.
It appears that Northern Virginia courthouses have been most affected by the change in the license procedure, perhaps because of their proximity to National Airport and to a major metropolitan area. Arlington County officials say they, too, have experienced an influx of couples since the new ruling. "On a good day, like a Monday or Friday, we get almost twice as many people now," said Arlington clerk Nancy Nicolai.
The General Assembly decided to waive the blood test requirement because the test was deemed ineffective -- in 1982, 124,000 blood tests were administered and only 14 cases of syphilis were detected.
"Even if you found out they had syphilis, you couldn't keep them from getting married. You'd just tell them they had it," said Stephanie Collier, a clerk in the Alexandria courthouse.
Another clerk in the Alexandria office, who asked to remain anonymous, argued that it is not the dropping of the blood test requirement, but the lack of a "cool down," or waiting period that makes Virginia's courthouses such nuptial hot spots. In Maryland, couples must wait two days after applying for their marriage license; in the District they must take a blood test and wait five days.
"It doesn't take any forethought here. You can just walk in," the clerk said, and pay your $20 for a license and a fee that varies, but is usually about $20, for the ceremony. Even when blood tests were required in Virginia, there was a laboratory near the Alexandria courthouse that would analyze blood and supply results within an hour, the clerk said.
The lab in question, as well as a similar lab in Arlington that also catered almost exclusively to impatient lovers, has closed since the change in the law.
The Alexandria clerks said that the ease of marriage Virginia-style has always attracted couples from well beyond the metropolitan area. For example, Broadway producer David Merrick has traveled south twice -- once in 1969 and once in 1982 -- to take his vows before Alexandria's Judge Daniel Fairfax O'Flaherty. Merrick listed both marriages as his third, a clerk wickedly points out.
Others have come recently from Chicago, Pennsylvania and Georgia, according to court records. Clerk Nancy Postman added that a surprising number of foreigners come in. "These two were particularly rude," she said as she flipped through the back records with the trained eye of a marriage counselor. "I felt they deserved each other."