Woman again vows not to take down Virgin Mary painting. The law may be on her side, experts say

The Tropical Palms mobile home park in Bradenton, which is embroiled in a legal battle with an 85-year-old woman over a painting of the Virgin Mary on the outside of her trailer, may be breaking the law, according to experts on fair housing laws and the mobile home industry.

Lawyers representing the park’s board of directors are trying to force Millie Francis to remove the painting, but she remains just as defiant today as when she first said, “They’ll have to kill me first,” when park management demanded she remove the painting in December.

A fair housing expert and a mobile home industry expert say Tropical Palms may not be able to prove that this isn’t a case of religious discrimination. The also said the park has bungled the process.

“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,” said Nadeem Green, a fair housing attorney. “Religion has been a protected class under the FHA since its inception in 1968.”

Green has taught fair housing law in a number of states and is an author on the subject.

“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.”

Thus far, the park’s attorneys continue to state that the subject matter of the painting is not the issue and that Francis used improper materials to replace a window on the front of her mobile home. They also argue she did not follow the proper protocol required by park regulations.

However, Francis did receive permission to “replace and paint” the window area after she complained that park security was shining flashlights into her home in the middle of the night. The problems didn’t surface until the nature of the painting was revealed.

One industry expert said it’s the park’s fault for initiating the need for replacement. The park’s ongoing push to force Francis to remove the painting is giving the industry a “black eye.”

L.A. ‘Tony’ Kovach has worked in the manufactured home industry for a quarter century and publishes MHProNews.com and MHLivingNews.com, the leading online publications for mobile home industry news and lifestyle.

Kovach has been following and writing about Francis’ dilemma in his trade publications and told the Bradenton Herald on Monday that he can’t help but wonder why other post-production trade associations and resident-owned community advocates have remained silent on the issue.

“As trade media, we’ve asked that community’s management, Vanguard Management, and their law firm, Knox and Levine, to clarify several concerns about possible fair housing violations or other significant details,” Kovach said. “They’ve exercised their right to be mute. So based upon the information Mrs. Francis provided, MHLivingnews. published information, visual, photographic or video evidence, and decades of experience in the community sector of the industry, it seems that numerous management errors have arguably occurred.”

Kovach said park manager Janet Nowakowski, if she was doing her job, had to have driven by Francis’ home while the window replacement was taking place.

“Doing a daily tour of the entire community is a common management best practice,” he said. “If Nowakowski objected, she could have stopped the work long before the artist started.”

One of the board’s attorneys, Bryan Levine, stated in court documents that the park was not objecting to the religious theme of the painting, but Kovach said it wasn’t until the painting was completed that park management took issue with the project.

“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.”

Francis said she recently installed a security camera on her home after one of the board members kept coming to her home and knocking on the door against her will.

“I’m a nervous wreck,” Francis said. “My heart starts beating too fast. I have done no wrong whatsoever. It’s just so sad that this can’t come to a peaceful resolution. They keep saying it’s a plywood issue, but it’s a religious thing and I know it. Nowakowski and other board members passed by here so many times when I was replacing the window and never said a word. As soon as they saw the painting is when they started demanding I take it down.”

While Francis has come off as “one tough old lady,” in the media, Kovach worries about her health given her age, the stress of being legally intimidated and the fact that she is a heart patient. But Francis remains defiant.

“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.”

In a development that surfaced Monday, attorneys representing the park’s board of directors against Francis are refusing to allow her more time to negotiate an amicable solution to save the painting, which local artist Ingrid Brandt was commissioned to do. Brandt came forward when she saw her work in jeopardy, saying she has artistic protection rights under state law.

Brandt supports saving the painting, a subject which the attorneys have yet to address.

The case against Francis was filed with the Florida Division of Condominiums, Timeshares and Mobile Homes. Lawyers asked initially for non-binding arbitration, but they said they will demand it go to mandatory arbitration if Francis’ request for an extension of time is not granted.

An arbitrator would have legal authority to make a final decision on the fate of the painting, as well as the potential to force Francis to pay all legal fees.

Francis reiterated her stance on the painting.

“It’s not going anywhere.”

Breaking News/Real Time Reporter Mark Young began his career in 1996 and has been with the Bradenton Herald since 2014. He has won more than a dozen awards over the years, including the coveted Lucy Morgan Award for In-Depth Reporting from the Florida Press Club and for beat reporting from the Society for Professional Journalists to name a few. His reporting experience is as diverse as the communities he covers.
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