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Deaf couple suing Duval court; lawyer says they were refused marriage license

The lawsuit says the couple was denied a marriage license because they did not have an interpreter, but the court did not provide one.

DUVAL COUNTY, Fla. — A deaf couple who say they were discriminated against when they were denied a marriage license in Duval County are now suing the court, a filing submitted Tuesday says

Ten years from the day they met, Joel Alfaro and Yusela Machado Silvente came to the Duval County Clerk of Circuit Court's office in October 2021 to request a marriage license. 

“We felt excited and exhilarated to walk into the courthouse that day. We were excited to be recognized," Yusela Machado Silvente said.

But according to their attorney John Phillips, the clerk of court denied Joel and Yusela the license because they didn't bring a sign language interpreter with them.

“To not be leaving with a marriage certificate after 10 years of being together and clearly being thrilled to have the opportunity to spend our lives together, the shock and was really overwhelming. It was pretty devastating," Machado Silvente said. 

Documents show that the couple were told that they should bring a friend or family member to help interpret and weren't be provided an interpreter, but the court's website says "the Fourth Judicial Circuit provides interpreter services and reasonable accommodations in all cases for deaf persons in accordance with Florida Statutes and the Americans with Disabilities Act."

A lawsuit filed against the court and Clerk of Court Jody Phillips says that this is a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act and infringes on the couple's civil rights. It says the couple was "humiliated by the discriminatory treatment." The lawsuit also references that the right to marry is fundamental. 

"As disappointed as they were to be turned away on their special day, the couple's sadness only deepened when they ran into much complications while making numerous attempts to figure out what they actually needed to do before they could say 'I do,'" Attorney John Phillips wrote in a press release.

The Clerk’s Office says it cannot comment because of pending litigation but says the Clerk does take the allegations seriously.

The couple wants a jury to hear the arguments in the case. The lawsuit asks that the District Court assume jurisdiction over the matter, provide an interpreter, provide the couple with a marriage license, award damages and pay attorney fees. 

”We don't want the next step couple to walk into that courthouse and experience the kind of traumatic event that we went through that day, we would like for the ease of access and accessibility to happen on the day that people want to obtain their marriage licenses, regardless of their status or disability," Joel Alfaro and Yusela Machado Silvente said. 

According to a complaint submitted to the court, Alfaro and Silvente have children together and being denied their marriage license has caused them the loss of tax benefits, inheritance rights, property rights, hospital access and more marriage benefits.

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