TAMPA — They knew they would be denied, but tried anyway.
In celebration of 19 years as a gay couple, Jarrod Scarbrough and Les Sewell of near Tampa walked Tuesday into the Hillsborough County Courthouse to ask for a marriage license.
They were prepared: driver's licenses, Social Security cards, and $93.50 for the fee. Most importantly, they say, they're in love and have been since they met nearly two decades ago over a card game when they lived in New Mexico.
"This has been a long time coming," said Scarbrough, as the couple waited in the courthouse lobby with their 9-year-old daughter, Alegra.
Employee Sharon Lee called their number. Things went as expected.
"The state of Florida doesn't recognize same-sex marriage, so I'm not going to be able to issue a marriage license," Lee said.
"It's unfortunate you have to abide by an unjust statute," Scarbrough retorted. "In this case, could you step outside the box?"
"It would actually be illegal for me to issue the license," she replied, offering a copy of the statute.
Similar scenes have played out around the country in recent months, with at least 22 same-sex couples flummoxing courthouse employees and attracting stares from bystanders, said Felipe Sousa-Rodriguez, a spokesman for the state chapter of GetEQUAL, the civil rights group that organizes the protests.
The group wants to force people to face what it means to refuse equality, said Sousa-Rodriguez, who also was denied a marriage license in Hillsborough last month.
These challenges to state rules are a part of the group's "Fight for the 14th" campaign, a reference to the U.S. Constitution amendment that guarantees equal protection.
Not being able to get married is a big deal, said Scarbrough, adding that — unlikely as it was — he hoped the county would issue the license.
Marriage would mean joint custody of Alegra, born of a surrogate parent, he said. It would mean the couple could visit each other in the hospital if one becomes ill, and they could file their tax returns together.
It would also mean equality in the eyes of the law, and, eventually, the public, Scarbrough said.
"Not being able to get married does hit you psychologically and socially," he said. "It's kind of hard to spend 19 years together and only be able to say, 'This is my partner.' "
Tampa's domestic partner registry is open to people who, like the couple, live outside the city limits. But the protections it offers — including hospital visitation, funeral planning and education decisions for children — apply only to institutions within the city. Scarbrough, who works for United Healthcare, and Sewell, a stay-at-home dad, are not registered, saying it's not worth moving to Tampa for the limited benefits.
Florida voters in 2008 strengthened the state's law against same sex marriages and civil unions by adding the ban to the state's constitution.
"It does hit you in the heart when you see other couples walking in, and you don't know if they've known each other for a week or a day," Scarbrough said. "But they still get their marriage licenses."