On October 15, 2021 on the 10th anniversary of the day they met, Joel Alfaro and Yusela Machado Silvente got dressed up and headed to the Duval County Clerk of Circuit Court's office in Jacksonville, Florida planning to become husband and wife.
But there were no nuptials that day.
The clerk's office denied the couple—who are both deaf—their marriage license because they didn’t bring their own sign language interpreter with them.
The couple's frustration grew when numerous attempts to figure out what they needed to do before they could get a marriage license and get married proved more confusing and fruitless.
Now a year after their first attempt, the Clerk of Circuit Court in Duval County still hasn't issued the couple their marriage license keeping Alfaro and Silvente from getting married.
The website for the Duval County Clerk cites adherence to the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) which states reasonable accommodations will be made for individuals with disabilities.
Because of their ongoing issues with the Duval clerk's office, the couple filed a federal lawsuit against the Circuit Court of Duval County and Clerk of Circuit Court Jody Phillips.
They state their goal is to ensure other deaf couples don't face the same unnecessary obstacles they endured.
The couple is being represented pro bono by John Phillips of Phillips & Hunt, Mary Vargas and Michael Stein of Stein & Vargas and Marc Charmatz of the National Association of the Deaf (NAD).
The NAD (National Association of the Deaf) is a civil rights organization based in Maryland for deaf and hard of hearing people established in 1880.
Attorney John Phillips told Action News JAX:
"They went to the clerk’s counter and were denied a license and [the clerk's office employee] said, ‘Well, no. You need to bring a hearing-impaired interpreter with you,’ and [Alfaro and Machado Silvente] said, ‘Well, that’s not what we know the law to be, can we speak to a manager?"
But after waiting almost an hour as other couples were issued licenses, a conversation with the office manager yielded the same response—the couple were responsible for finding their own interpreter and no license would be issued without an interpreter.
Silvente stated they even offered to handle everything through written communication instead, but the clerk's office refused saying it couldn't be done.
"Even the clerks website says they will provide an interpreter in these cases."
The couple met in Colombia and speak Spanish.
Finding an interpreter who speaks Spanish and knows sign language can be challenging which is why the couple looked to the clerk’s office to fulfill the ADA accommodations they requested.
Through an interpreter the couple stated:
"We would like for the ease of access and accessibility to happen on the day that people want to obtain their marriage license regardless of their status."
The Fourth Judicial Circuit Court of Florida’s website states under its foreign language interpreter program individuals are entitled to a sign language interpreter at no cost. It also says requests for a sign language interpreter should be made at least five days in advance.
Once Alfaro and Machado Silvente were aware of the requirement for advance notice, they spent the past year trying to get an interpreter through the clerk's office and to be scheduled for an appointment to get their marriage license, making at least eight calls.
But the couple was still denied an interpreter from the clerk's office.
"The sanctity of marriage was something we were really looking forward to."
"....Alfaro tried to calm me down as we continued to get 'no's,' and at the end of it, the shock and awe was really overwhelming."
"It was pretty devastating and I tried to figure out just how this was happening."
Co-counsel Mary Vargas stated:
"I cannot begin to imagine what it is like for Joel and Yusela."
"The ability to get married, I cannot think what is more fundamental to a person's humanity, to a person's right to live their life with children, with a spouse and to have access to all of the benefits that everybody else has."
According to their lawsuit, the clerk of courts office is prohibited from discriminating against "qualified individuals with disabilities on the basis of disability," while clerk Jody Phillips is being sued because he denied the couple a license to marry.
The lawsuit states:
"Defendants unequivocally denied Mr. Alfaro and Ms. Machado Silvente a license because they are deaf."
"Since that time, the defendants have repeatedly failed to respond to Mr. Alfaro’s pleas that he and Ms. Machado Silvente be allowed to marry."
"This irrational, anachronistic, offensive, and discriminatory conduct by the defendants violates the United States Constitution, the Americans with Disabilities Act and section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act."
Their suit points out Duval County's court allows marriage licenses to be obtained on a walk-in basis without a prior appointment. Alfaro and Silvente satisfied the required elements to obtain the license, but the clerk's office "refused to issue" one unless the couple also provided their own sign language interpreter.
They "were humiliated by the discriminatory treatment against them and suffered stigmatic injury" on a day they had looked forward to with joy.
Vargas told the Florida Times-Union:
"The fact that hearing couples were issued marriage licenses while they were sent away, it defies words."
Chamatz of the NAD said:
"How could this be in 2021/2022 that a deaf couple cannot get married."
"So often I have known that hearing people say that deaf people can't do something, can't do this, can't do that."
"But when you can't get married, one of the most fundamental rights in this country, legal action is necessary."
Co-counsel John Phillips believes an attorney working with Clerk of Courts Jody Phillips could have found a way to get Alfaro and Silvente a marriage license.
But the lawsuit will ensure other deaf couples don't face the same challenges they endured. Hiring an attorney to negotiate release of your marriage license shouldn't be the norm for disabled people if it's not required for the abled.
People were appalled at the difficulties Alfaro and Silvente faced.
Marriage equality has been hailed as the law of the land in the United States, but a major gulf still exists for the disabled and their marriage rights.
This lawsuit is just one example of many of marriage inequality faced by the disabled.
Clerk of courts spokesman Brian Corrigan said his office won't comment on pending litigation, but added:
"However, the clerk does take the allegations seriously and will continue to ensure we provide the best service possible to each customer in our office."
Alfaro and Silvente have set up a GoFundMe account to help pay for the court fees and costs of their legal action and to help them get married.