The lawyer for Twins Florist, which was sued by the Freedom From Religion Foundation for refusing to deliver flowers to a teenage atheist who last year spearheaded the removal of the famous prayer banner at Cranston High School West — said the flower shop is a victim of the FFRF's desire for publicity and special interests.
In an interview, Chris Orton, who is representing Twins owner Marina Plowman, said Plowman "certainly feels she didn't discriminate against the FFRF and had a reasonable basis not to fill the order."
At the time, Ahlquist was making national headlines for her suit against the district over the banner, which ultimately was removed after a judge ruled the banner was unconstitutional.
Orton said Plowman refused the order in an effort to avoid being dragged into the controversy. But that obviously didn't happen.
Last year, the FFRF filed a complaint with the state's Human Rights Commission and now she's being sued in Superior Court.
"She was dragged into this," Orton said. "And she feels unjustly. She does feel a bit of a victim in this."
Orton said "it's our belief that the FFRF is using her as a way to get publicity for its own special interests."
When the FFRF announced that they would be filing complaints alleging discrimination against Twins and other florists for refusing to take the flower orders, it impacted Plowman's business, Orton said.
"She had to shut the shop down for a period of time because she was flooded with phone calls and e-mails from people not so supportive of the situation," Orton said.
The e-mails and phone calls were unpleasant, nasty and at-times threatening in nature.
Most of those calls and messages were from people who live far from Cranston and caught wind of the situation through Internet message boards, atheist Web sites and other media outlets that picked up on the story.
But locally, support for Twins appears to be growing. Although Orton said he couldn't comment whether Plowman has seen a surge in business from locals hoping to support her, there is anecdotal evidence that many in the city, with Valentine's Day approaching, are making sure to spend their money there.
"As a Christian and a Cranston resident, I have decided to buy all my flowers from Twins!" said Patch Reader Linda. "I send flowers to my mom and sister in Chicago and my sister in Washington, and when I graduate in May, I'll be sending some to my thesis advisor at PC! Endorse Twins on your FB pages, folks. Don't let her be bullied by the Freedom of Religion Foundation."
Dozens of comments like Linda's can be found on our previous posts about this topic, and on our Facebook page and Twins' Facebook page.
Orton said he plans to file a motion asking the judge to rule that FFRF's claim can't proceed based on the facts of the case, which he said shows "there's no way the FFRF" would be successful in the suit, "even if you look at the facts favorably from their perspective."
Orton said they've accepted service on waiver, which means they have 60 days to answer FFRF's claim with a written answer in which they'll make their denials, raise defenses and bring up any counterclaims they may or may not have.
The entire legal process "could take years" to resolve, Orton said.
In the complaint, the FFRF states that Plowman denied the organization "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."
At the time, Cranston police officers were guarding Ahlquist's house, and she was being cyberbullied by people upset with her involvement in the case against the school district, which was brought by the Rhode Island Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union on Ahlquist's behalf.
Reached by telephone, Plowman said she couldn't immediately comment on the lawsuit, but said she has suffered greatly from the whole ordeal.
The FFRF filed complaints with the state Commission for Human Rights last year when the group was reportedly denied flower orders by three different local flower shops.
Plowman said she received threats and harassing calls, emails and other messages after news of the FFRF complaint surfaced last year.
"It was a horrible two weeks," she said. "They threatened me and it was a hard and difficult situation."
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Another complaint was filed against Flowers by Santilli but they "chose [to] pursue mediation through the commission" and a hearing is set for March, according to a release.