By MICHELLE R. SMITH
PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) – A florist who refused to deliver a dozen roses to a 16-year-old who fought to remove a prayer banner at her public school has been sued by the atheist group that placed the order.
The group is seeking flowers and an apology for discriminating against them for their religion, but the florist’s lawyer says that’s not going to happen because she didn’t discriminate.
Madison-based Freedom From Religion Foundation sued florist Marina Plowman on Jan. 25 in Rhode Island Superior Court.
It says Plowman broke state laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of religion when she refused to deliver the flowers to Jessica Ahlquist in January 2012, after she won a legal battle to remove the prayer banner at her high school in Cranston. A judge’s ruling that the banner was unconstitutional set off a storm of criticism of Ahlquist, including from a state lawmaker, who called her an “evil little thing.”
Annie Laurie Gaynor, co-president of the secular group, said she asked a Wisconsin florist to send flowers to Ahlquist with a note of congratulations and encouragement. That request was turned down by several florists in Rhode Island, including Plowman’s Twins Florist. According to the lawsuit, Plowman responded to the request to send the flowers with a note saying, “I will not deliver to this person.”
She said her jaw dropped when she heard back from her florist that several florists had refused the order.
“We have never encountered a situation where we couldn’t send flowers to someone because she was an atheist,” she said Friday.
The lawsuit says she also told a TV station: “It’s my freedom of speech. I refuse orders when I want and take orders when I want.”
Ultimately, a florist in Putnam, Conn., delivered the flowers.
The group filed discrimination complaints against Plowman and another florist with the Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights, which must vet such claims before they go to court. Gaynor said they hope to settle their complaint against the other florist without filing a lawsuit.
Plowman’s lawyer, Christopher Orton, said they had discussed settling the dispute before the commission but the group wanted Plowman to acknowledge she discriminated against them, something that was not acceptable to her, he said.
“She clearly believes she did not,” he said. “She denies it.”
He called the lawsuit frivolous.
Gaynor said she wants Ahlquist to get her flowers, and she also wants Plowman to send her group some flowers, as well as an apology.
“This is very little to ask for,” she said. “This is a teachable moment.”