Cranston, Rhode Island — An activist humanist group has filed a lawsuit against a Rhode Island florist for refusing to deliver flowers to a teenager that succeeded in having a 50-year-old prayer banner removed from the walls of her high school.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) states that last year, after 16-year-old Jessica Ahlquist won her controversial legal battle over the prayer banner, the group sought to send her a dozen roses with the message, “Congratulations, and hang in there. With admiration from FFRF.” However, the group met opposition when three florists in the Cranston area declined to fulfill the order.
One of those florists was Marina Plowman, who runs Twins Florist. She states that she did not know Ahlquist, but was not comfortable with making the delivery. She sent back a receipt order that read, “I will not deliver to this person.”
“I just chose not to do it. Nothing personal; it was a choice that I made. It was my right, so I did that,” she said. “I’m an independent owner and I can chose whoever I want, whenever I want.”
However, FFRF disagreed.
“We have basic civil rights standards in our society. A business can’t shun you because you’re an atheist,” stated president Annie Laurie Gaylor. “You do not have the right to refuse to do business with someone based on categories and that includes religion. It’s as if they said ‘I will not deliver to a black person.’”
The organization consequently filed a complaint with the Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights, which, in a preliminary investigation concluded that Plowman may have violated the state’s discrimination laws. FFRF subsequently filed a lawsuit in Rhode Island Superior Court, seeking a declaration that Plowman’s actions were illegal.
“[Plowman denied FFRF] 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,” the suit states.
Plowman denies that she was discriminatory.
A second florist that was targeted by FFRF for refusing to deliver the roses has agreed to mediate the matter with the organization via the Commission. Raymond Santilli of Flowers by Santilli says that he was informed at the time of the order that the company might need police protection when delivering the roses because of the controversy surrounding Ahlquist. Many strongly disagreed with her, and one Rhode Island lawmaker called her “an evil little thing.”
“We refused the order because we really don’t want to cross lines,” Santilli told reporters. “If I send flowers there, somebody may get upset with us and retaliate against us.”
He is scheduled to attend a hearing in March.
Public opinion over the matter has been sharply divided.
“This is perilous because business owners do not surrender their First Amendment rights at the marketplace gate,” writes one commenter named Terry. “A black videographer who declines to film a Ku Klux Klan rally is exercising her right of conscience, not engaging in racial discrimination against white people. The First Amendment protects the right of people to refuse to promote a message they oppose.”
“[I]t is wrong,” another stated. “A service was denied to a person based solely on lack of religious belief. It is the same thing as Motel 6 denying accommodations for someone who is Catholic or gay.”
“Doesn’t freedom of religion also allow believers to fly a banner?” a third commenter asked. “I think the florist was right to follow her own beliefs.”
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