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Couples were handpicked for gay marriage suit

By Dan Sweeney, Sun Sentinel
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Aug. 03--The meeting at the Miami-Dade courthouse had not happened by chance.

Six gay and lesbian couples did not suddenly decide, at the same moment in early January, to get marriage licenses even though same-sex marriages are illegal in Florida. And, until the couples came upon each other outside the clerk of courts' office, they had no idea who else would be involved.

"David [Price] and Juan Carlos [Rodriguez] were very good friends of ours," recalled Todd Delmay, who was there with his partner Jeff Delmay. "We'd been at their house the weekend before and just never said anything."

But there was the couple, paperwork in hand, ready to get their marriage license -- or rather, ready to be turned down. So were Summer Greene and Pam Faerber, Don Price Johnston and Jorge Isaias Diaz and Vanessa and Melanie Alenier. (The Delmays and the Aleniers each share a last name but are not married.)

A sixth couple involved in the suit, Catherina Paretto and Karla Arguello, attempted to get a marriage license at a different clerk's office.

These six couples -- four of whom live in Broward -- were the product of a months-long vetting process to find the best possible plaintiffs for a lawsuit dedicated to overturning Florida's same-sex marriage ban. The process began not long after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the federal Defense of Marriage Act in June 2013.

That month, Equality Florida, the state's largest LGBT rights organization, started the Get Engaged campaign, looking for committed couples willing to be guinea pigs.

"We put out a call to let people know that we wanted to do two things," said Nadine Smith, Equality Florida's co-founder and CEO. "We knew we wanted marriage equality the fastest way possible, which would mean going to court, and we also wanted our friends and neighbors to see what effect this had on loving couples in Florida, so we wanted to give people a chance to tell their stories."

Within 24 hours, about 500 couples submitted their stories. Eventually, more than 1,000 said they would be willing to join a lawsuit for same-sex marriage.

The organization held Get Engaged summits, in which potential couples were interviewed, videotaped and culled. Couples that had already been married in other states were crossed off the list. Other couples dropped out once Equality Florida's staff explained to them how big of a commitment this really was.

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A law firm then thinned the group with input from Equality Florida and Freedom to Marry, a national group campaigning for same-sex marriage in all 50 states.

"It mattered to us that we could get people that spoke from different perspectives -- grandparents, parents, people that had been together for years, and newly engaged people," Smith said. "Florida's a huge state. We wanted to make sure we represented the different age groups and communties."

The group settled on the six couples for the Miami-Dade lawsuit. And on this January day, here they all were, along with lawyer Elizabeth Schwartz, marching into the clerk's office and demanding the impossible.

"The woman behind the counter was like, 'Oh, did something change?'" Delmay said. "Other people there, straight couples who were getting their licenses, were taking pictures of all of us. We knew we'd be denied, but it was still an exciting day."

Schwartz filed a lawsuit a week later.

All of them were ready for this. While all of them were "in it for the long haul," perhaps none were as prepared as the Aleniers, who live in Hollywood with their 5-year-old son, Ethan.

In 2010, they were plaintiffs in one of two lawsuits, along with that of Martin Gill, that overturned Florida's decades-old ban on gay adoption.

Between adoption and marriage, Vanessa and Melanie Alenier have spent a quarter of their eight-year relationship involved in lawsuits.

"A month after I got [maternity insurance] coverage, we got the news about Ethan," a relative of Vanessa's at risk of being place in foster care, Melanie Alenier said.

Ethan came under their care when he was just 9 days old. Because of the 1977 law banning gay adoption in Florida, Vanessa Alenier had to sue to become his mom.

"He was our life the minute we had him," Melanie Alenier said. "So that was scary thinking we might not be able to adopt him. And once we overcame that and helped change the law, when [the same-sex marriage lawsuit] happened, I already knew that changing the law could happen. That we could really make a difference."

The Aleniers were sort of ringers in the decision process. Equality Florida approached them just before the trip to the clerk of courts office, rather than the couple going through the Get Engaged process.

"I'm sure they wanted to make sure everyone was in a committed relationship and were serious about being in the lawsuit," Vanessa said.

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In this battle, "it feels like we've got the support of the whole country," Melanie Alenier said.

And if they prevail, they hope to have a court date that, finally, is for them alone.

"It'll be very small, it might even just be the two of us at the courthouse," Vanessa Alenier said. "I've lived my entire life thinking I'm never going to marry the person I love, and now that we're closer, it's surprised me how excited I've become."

dsweeney@sun-sentinel.com, 954-356-4605 or Twitter @Daniel_Sweeney

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(c)2014 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)

Visit the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) at www.sun-sentinel.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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