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Elderly Florida woman refuses to take down painting of Mary, in legal battle

J-P Mauro - published on 02/21/19

Her response to their demands: "They'll have to kill me first."

A legal feud has been ignited between 85-year-old Florida resident Millie Francis and the Tropical Palms mobile home park, where she lives, after she replaced one of her windows with a mural of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Representatives of Tropical Palms, who have refused to comment on the proceedings, have urged Francis to remove the painting, which she has made clear she will defend with her life if necessary. Now experts on fair housing laws and the mobile home industry say the law may be on her side.

The dispute began in late 2018, when Millie sought permission to replace her front window, citing a need for privacy from nosy neighbors who peek into her house and security guards who shine their lights through her windows late at night. The Brandenton Herald reports Francis received approval to “replace and paint” the window area.

For several days the caretakers watched as the window was removed, a large section of plywood was installed, and the artist began painting the mural. Francis said it was only after the image of the Blessed Virgin appeared that the park’s board of directors demanded it come down.

In early November, the park’s lawyers gave Francis 30 days to remove the image, which has not budged an inch from its position, mirroring Millie’s own stance. Millie, who died and was resuscitated during open heart surgery 16 years ago, says she’s willing to die again for her beliefs. Calling the legal dispute religious discrimination, when first asked if she would take it down, she responded “They’ll have to kill me first.” She has repeated this sentiment many times in the following months.

“They say I’ll have to pay their attorney fees if they prevail in court. I can’t afford this. I need help and I don’t know what will happen to me, but I do know I’m not taking it down.”

Nadeem Green, a fair housing attorney who has taken an interest in the case, believes the community is in the wrong and that the court should not reach a decision to see the mural removed. He told the Brandenton Herald

“If what (the Bradenton Herald) has reported is accurate, then there is a strong possibility that the treatment of Millie Francis is contrary to the Fair Housing Act. Religion has been a protected class under the FHA since its inception in 1968. If Francis has been treated differently than others who have displayed religious art of any nature, or if she is being held to administrative minutia purely as a pretext to require the removal of her art, then that is wrong for a number of reasons, including legal ones.”

The board has stated that the work on the window was completed with the use of improper materials. The argument has been made, however, that the park manager, who would have passed Millie’s house every day during the course of their work, could have raised concerns about materials while the project was ongoing. The park has said the problem is not with the religious content, but the problems only arose once the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe came into view.

L.A. ‘Tony’ Kovach, a writer for MH Living News who has worked in the manufactured home industry for 25 years, has noted that the entire affair was caused by the employees of the park:

“Perhaps more to the point, allowing their security patrols to repeatedly shine a spotlight into Francis’ home — which sparked the 85-year-old widow’s desire to replace the window — is an unacceptable invasion of a resident’s right to peaceful enjoyment of their home,” Kovach said. “In my professional view, management is dead wrong and has apparently violated her rights in several ways.”

Millie has refused to give up the fight, but as the legal altercation stretches on for months it is taking its toll on the retiree, who says, “I’m a nervous wreck. My heart starts beating too fast.” A dangerous position for an old woman who has been through heart surgery. Francis is adamant that many board members passed by the work without a second thought before the image of Mary was painted.

She has, however, received support from the people around her community. She has reported that many people have stopped by her house in order to complement the painting:

“I know the Virgin is working here,” Francis said. “A garbage man last week, a great big man, got out of his vehicle and asked me about the lady in the painting and I told him it was Our Lady. I explained who she is and he came back and stood in front of the picture and said, ‘Pray for me lady.’ And I did.”

As the case goes through the courts, Millie has requested an extension of time as she gathers her resources. If the extension is not granted, she intends to demand it go to mandatory arbitration, at which point an arbitrator would make a final decision. It is unclear if Millie would follow an unfavorable court ruling, as she has stated, “It’s not going anywhere.”

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