Establishment Clause challenges typically produce much hype in the local community where they occur. Sometimes, they even cause local backlash. It is hardly an anomaly, for example, for a student-plaintiff to face heightened ostracism by his or her friends, school or even broader community after mounting an Establishment Clause challenge to a school prayer policy. Relocating and starting over at a new school, far-far away from a student’s original social-network, therefore comes as no surprise. Often, student-plaintiffs willingly and courageously assume the duty as mere protocol.

A few days ago, a student-plaintiff represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, Jessica Ahlquist, experienced such local backlash after prevailing on her successful Establishment Clause challenge. This time, however, community backlash took a new spin. Instead of the standard hate-letter or losing a friend or two, local florists got in the mix in order to express their disdain over Ahlquist’s recent success in court.

On January 11, 2012 the Rhode Island District Court in Ahlquist v. City of Cranston announced that a prayer mural hanging in Ahlquist’s public high school auditorium violated the Establishment Clause. The mural includes the text of a school prayer that was routinely recited by students before the practice was invalidated by the U.S. Supreme Court’s hallmark school prayer decision in Engle v. Vitale (1962). It begins with sectarian phrases such as “Our Heavenly Father” and ends with the hallmark endorsement “Amen.” City officials, however, disclaim any sectarian religious affiliation by noting the mural is a historical artifact from the school’s early days and therefore serves no religious purpose. After all, it was merely a gift from the Class of 1963, graduating coincidentally one year after the Warren Court rang the death-knell for school prayer in Engle.

In finding the mural to violate the Establishment Clause, the court declared per Judge Ronald Lagueux that: “The purposes of the Prayer when drafted, and the Prayer Mural, when installed, were clearly religious in nature…. No amount of debate can make the School Prayer anything other than a prayer, and a Christian one at that.” The court accordingly granted a permanent injunction requiring the school to immediately remove the mural from the auditorium. Notably, Judge Lagueux also exclaimed the brave and courageous stand taken by Ahlquist against the Prayer Mural given the hostile response she faced and will likely continue to experience from the community.

As a token for her courageous action, the Freedom from Religion Foundation, an advocacy group for the separation of church and state based in Madison, WI, attempted to send her a bouquet of flowers. Three florists located in Cranston—the city where Ahlquist lives, and one in a neighboring town, however, saw otherwise. Instead of fulfilling their historical role as bearers of good news, each florist rendered a new form of community backlash against Establishment Clause challenges by refusing to deliver thanks to Ahlquist.

According to a press release by the Freedom from Religion Foundation, all four florists refused to send Ahlquist flowers because of her recent success in the Prayer Mural case. See Here. The first shop, Floral Express, deceptively stated it was not available for business even though it answered the phone call. The owner of Floral Express then mentioned: “I am not able to fill this [order].” The second shop took it one step further: “I will not deliver to this person.” The third shop followed suit by unequivocally refusing to deliver only after hearing the flowers were intended for Ahlquist. And, the fourth shop, located outside Cranston, put the proverbial “cherry-on-the-top” by initially agreeing to take the order, but eventually refusing after patrons voraciously threatened to boycott the business if it delivered the flowers. As a result, the FFRF was forced to contact a far-distant shop in Putnam, Connecticut called Glimpse of Gaia, who not only agreed to deliver the bouquet to Ahlquist, but also threw in a second token bouquet with its own message: “Glimpse of Gaia fully supports our First Amendment and will not be bullied by those who do not. Here’s to you, Jessica Ahlquist.”

Many of the florists who denied delivery have ostensibly justified their actions upon non-discriminatory grounds. Local newspapers report that Raymond Santill, the owner of Flowers by Santil, one of the companies the FRFF attempted to order from, rejected the delivery because the person delivering the flowers would need police protection and identification to enter the home. Santil further averred that as the owner of the store he has the right to deliver or not to deliver to whomever he pleases. See Here. Similarly, the owner of Twin Florists, Marina Plowman, echoes Santil in stating: “I just chose not to do it. Nothing personal, it was a choice that I made. It was my right, so I did that. I’m an independent owner and I can choose whoever I want, whenever I want.” Id.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation, however, believes otherwise. And, they may be correct according to Rhode Island law, which offers heightened protection for religious liberties. Stemming back to Rhode Island’s religiously tolerant roots, Rhode Island General Law 11-24-2 makes it unlawful for a place of public accommodation to deny services on account of religion. According to the Freedom from Religion Foundation, then, the florists clearly violated this state law by refusing to deliver to Ahlquist because of atheist beliefs. The Commission for Human Rights in Rhode Island is currently investigating the matter in light of these allegations.

While it remains unclear whether additional litigation will ensue as a result of the florists’ discrimination against Ahlquist, one thing remains certain: student-plaintiffs often face backlash from a myriad of sources within their local communities in response to their Establishment Clause challenges. Thankfully, though, some students like Jessica Ahlquist are courageous enough to stand up for their First Amendment rights in the face of such community hostility. Kudos to you, Jessica Ahlquist.

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7 Comments

  1. Carl S. says:

    One point that wasn’t mentioned is that R.I. law includes all “retail stores” as public accommodations, unlike some other states. Also, I wish FFRF had tested the policies of those stores prior to filing a complaint. They should have tried to place second orders to someone else, and included a gift message such as, “From one atheist to another, Happy Birthday, Jane.” If they delivered to Jane, but not to Jessica, it would be harder to prove discrimination based on religion. Without testing that, we don’t know if the stores were discriminating against atheists, or discriminating against a successful plaintiff who caused controversy. I hope you Harvard Legal types will analyze that scenario.

  2. Cynthia Nelms-Byrne says:

    I am appalled that commercial enterprises think it is their right to discriminate against someone for any reason – religion, race, sexual orientation. They seem to think that their own views should override the laws of the land. I salute courageous young people like Jessica, who stands up for what is right no matter what the consequences.

  3. John Quinn says:

    Great article! Bully for Ahlquist!

  4. Ruth Walker says:

    Jessica is a brave young lady. I read that she was amazed at the vast support for her.

  5. ed killian says:

    Posthumous salute to Jessica from the late Blossom Dearie

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ig2daWp-Pls

  6. Andrew says:

    The Freedom From Religion Foundation has also started a scholarship fund for students who, like Jessica, suffer alienation in their communities simply for fighting to uphold the Constitution. The “Atheists in Foxholes Support Fund” awards scholarships to deserving students, Jessica being the first recipient. Anybody who wants to donate can do so here: http://ffrf.org/get-involved/donate/ and select the “Atheists in Foxholes Support Fund” from the special projects bar. Help reward those who stand up for the First Amendment!

  7. Noah Kaplan says:

    I really love her quote from the end of the New York Times article: ““It’s almost like making a child get a shot even though they don’t want to. It’s for their own good. I feel like they might see it as a very negative thing right now, but I’m defending their Constitution, too.” Smart kid.

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