An Idaho family has won $75,000 in a lawsuit after they claimed their Homeowners Association discriminated against them for religious beliefs when they tried to stop them hosting an annual five-day-long nativity event that attracted thousands of people.
A jury unanimously agreed with Jeremy and Kristy Morris, known for putting on a festive extravaganza in the five days leading up to Christmas each year, after overwhelming evidence and witness accounts showed there was an Ebenezer Scrooge among HOA members.
All the usual components of the more extravagantly decorated American houses around this time of year were featured by the couple – who have three young children – including bright lights, hymns and even the often-considered secular figure of Santa Claus.
Jeremy and Kristy Morris (pictured with their children) sued West Hayden States First Addition Homeowners Association in 2017
A 2014 letter showed ‘preference for a non-religious individual’ to buy the home they transformed in a Christmas extravaganza each year
They planned five days of elaborate Christmas lights, decorations and hymns annually
But even before the family moved into the Ferndale Drive home that they picked with consideration for hosting their yearly set-up, the HOA had already shared a list of problems with their arrival in response to Morris asking how the event could be run with minimal upset.
In a 2014 letter they wrote: ‘It’s not the intention of the Board to discourage you from becoming part of our great neighborhood, but we do not wish to become entwined in any expensive litigation to enforce long standing rules and regulations and fill our neighborhood with the hundreds of people and possible undesirables. We have worked hard to keep our area peaceful, quiet, and clean…
‘And finally, I am somewhat hesitant in bringing up the fact that some of our residents are non-Christians or of another faith. And I don’t even want to think of the problems that could bring up.’
However an earlier draft of the letter was discovered where it ended with sentiments that were more direct.
The Coeur d’Alene Press reported it said: ‘We do not wish to become entwined in any expensive litigation to enforce long-standing rules and regulations and fill our neighborhood with the riff-raff you seemed to attract over by WalMart … Grouse Meadows indeed!!! We don’t allow ‘those kind’ in our neighborhood.’
They said he would have to cancel the festivities in order to move in.
But for Morris he was simply exercising his First Amendment right to peacefully practice his faith and saw it as his way to deliver his public ministry.
After his court triumph Morris told the Spokesman-Review about the letter: ‘The letter talks just like normal people talk every day. Normally, people don’t say, ‘Listen, you’re fired because I don’t like the color of your skin’.’
The correspondence between the parties also noted that excessively bright lights could be a problem, as well as road blockages.
Drawing in thousands of people each year their nativity play raised money for cancer patients
The family even arranged a shuttle bus and city-approved parking for guests
The Homeowners Association argued that excessive lighting was against the rules but admitted that was only in regards to permanent lights
However the father already had all bases covered and had paid for traffic management in the area – including organizing city-approved parking elsewhere for visitors and hiring a shuttle to his home – plus he held the activities between 6pm and 8pm just in time to tuck his own children into bed.
In the spirit of giving, free food and drink was provided for the two years of events that went ahead regardless and he paid out of pocket for insurance worth $2million on the storytelling which included live animals.
Neighbors threatened visitors to the family’s home and allegedly threatened to have Morris killed
All he asked is that visitors contributed to the Emmett Paul Snyders Foundation, giving money to actors dressed as Roman Centurions to help children sufferance from cancer, abuse and neglect.
In his case Morris used that fact that when he asked the HOA’s president in 2016, Ron Taylor, about the lighting issue, he admitted it was only in regards to permanent fixtures which ruled out the colorful bulbs regularly used on homes.
He noted Taylor told him the HOA had found issues ‘because someone in the association doesn’t like Christmas’.
Similarly, Angie Cox – who lived next door – helped his case by saying that during a phone call with HOA leader Jennifer Scott, it was clear they were trying to dissuade him from living there.
‘I asked Mrs. Scott what the real problem was and why they had not consulted the members about the attorney,’ Cox said in an affidavit. ‘”Is it he’s really breaking the law — or breaking the rules or you guys just don’t want him here?” And she told me, ‘We just don’t want him here’.’
Cox added that she heard no noise from her close residence.
Furthermore, Cox said in the sworn document that neighbors threatened attendees who came to see the house and the festivities around it, kicking cars, hurling profanities as the elderly and telling young people to leave the neighborhood.
Describing the HOA as ‘vigilantes’, Cox claimed neighbors even threatened to have Morris murdered and referred to him as ‘the enemy’.
Even the often-considered secular figure of Santa Claus was part of the fun for the Christian family
The jury awarded $60,000 compensatory damages and $15,000 punitive damages
The parents-of-three paid out of pocket to for insurance worth $2million and provided guests with entertainment, free food and drink, plus helped with travel and parking arrangements
Morris, who is a lawyer, won his claim but the neighbors who wanted out will get their wish as he now wishes to live in another neighborhood.
He claims he has lost thousands of dollars in making home improvements on his property.
‘Our family will live wherever we want to live to spread the message of Jesus Christ and the birth of our savior,’ he said. ‘We’re looking forward. We’re positive. We’re excited.’
The HOA filed counterclaims and if the case is appealed and the Morris family wins again with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals it would regulate law for similar incidents occurring throughout the most of the western area of the country.