America's largest group of atheists and agnostics, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), announced on Tuesday that it has filed a lawsuit against a Rhode Island florist for refusing to deliver its order of a dozen red roses to self-professed teen atheist, Jessica Ahlquist, whose complaint was behind the removal of a 50-year-old prayer mural at her high school.
FFRF's complaint, filed Jan. 25, alleges that Marina Plowman, owner-operator of Twins Florist in Cranston, R.I., denied the group "full and equal access to public accommodations by refusing to fulfill a flower order on the basis of religion (non-belief), in violation of Rhode Island General Laws."
"This is outright discrimination. It was ugly and it is a violation of the Civil Rights Act," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-founder of the FFRF, in an interview with The Christian Post on Wednesday. "This is very fundamental to civil liberties in this country. All we are asking for is the delivery of our flowers."
Among other things, the lawsuit is requesting that the court grant a permanent injunction against Plowman from further acts of discrimination or retaliation. It also asks that she be held liable for reasonable court costs and damages including pecuniary damages.
Ahlquist shot to national prominence in 2012 when a federal court sided with her in a legal battle with her high school, to remove a Christian prayer mural that had been on display in the school's auditorium for more than 50 years. She was given the Humanist Pioneer award last June at the American Humanist Association conference.
"When I saw it there, I knew it didn't belong," the Cranston High School student had told reporters after the ruling. "…It was a reminder that my school wasn't doing the right thing and that my school didn't necessarily support me and my views."
In a telephone interview with The Christian Post on Wednesday, Plowman appeared unperturbed by the new FFRF lawsuit, citing that most people found her "pleasant" in her community. "I have not spoken to anyone [in the media] since this all started so please accept my apologies," she said. "This has nothing to do with religion, I didn't even know who she (Ahlquist) was," she added.
According to FFRF, on Jan. 17, 2012, it asked a Wisconsin-based flower shop to help it deliver flowers to then 16-year-old Ahlquist to congratulate her on the court victory regarding the prayer mural. The Wisconsin-based shop allegedly contacted at least three florists in Cranston, but was turned down by all of the businesses. One floral shop said it was closed on the requested delivery day, and Twins Florist allegedly said, "I will not deliver to this person," while another shop also did not want to be involved with the recipient.
During the controversy, a Facebook page called "I Stand With The Cranston Florists," which is not directly affiliated with the floral businesses, defended the florists and wrote, "The Florists made a judgment call not to deliver the flowers due to safety concerns and the possibility of negative impact to their businesses … [they] should not be subjected to arbitrary punitive actions for simply not wanting to deal with the hassle surrounding this issue in our community."
Prior to Tuesday's lawsuit, FFRF had filed a complaint in January 2012 with the state Commission for Human Rights. A preliminary investigating commissioner determined in October that "probable cause" existed to believe that Plowman violated state law.
Gaylor contends that both parties could have engaged in more conciliation with the commission, but it was Plowman who chose to move the matter to Superior Court. "We have a very strong complaint," she noted citing video evidence that has been submitted to the court showing Plowman telling a TV reporter: "It's my freedom of speech. I refuse orders when I want and I take orders when I want." A jury trial has been requested.
The FFRF also filed a similar complaint with the state Commission for Human Rights about another flower shop, Flowers by Santilli's, refusal to fulfill their order. Flowers by Santilli, according to their statement, chose to pursue mediation through the commission. A hearing is set for March. CP reached out to Flowers by Santilli by telephone on Wednesday but they were unavailable for comment.
Attorney Katherine Godin of Warwick is FFRF's local counsel in the lawsuit. The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics).