Jury sides with Morris family in this unusual Christmas story

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  • A federal jury recently found that Jeremy Morris and his family had suffered religious discrimination in violation of the Fair Housing Act. Morris stands near a cross that is part of his annual Christmas ministry to the public. (JUDD WILSON/Press)

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    Courtesy photo Carolers serenade senior citizens shuttled in from local assisted living facilities as part of the Morris family’s Christmas program in 2015.

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    The Morris family’s celebration of Christmas is a ministry to others in the name of Christ, said Jeremy Morris. (Courtesy)

  • A federal jury recently found that Jeremy Morris and his family had suffered religious discrimination in violation of the Fair Housing Act. Morris stands near a cross that is part of his annual Christmas ministry to the public. (JUDD WILSON/Press)

  • 1

    Courtesy photo Carolers serenade senior citizens shuttled in from local assisted living facilities as part of the Morris family’s Christmas program in 2015.

  • 2

    The Morris family’s celebration of Christmas is a ministry to others in the name of Christ, said Jeremy Morris. (Courtesy)

HAYDEN — A federal jury recently put the West Hayden Estates Homeowners Association on Santa’s naughty list for religious discrimination in violation of the federal Fair Housing Act, ordering $75,000 in compensatory damages to go to the Jeremy Morris family.

Prior to the verdict, media coverage of Morris’s dispute with his HOA revolved around crowds, Christmas lights, and not-in-my-backyard sentiment. After examining drafts of letters issued by the HOA to neighborhood residents, sworn affidavits of the people who sold the home to the Morris family, recordings of conversations with HOA board members, and voluminous other pieces of testimony, the federal jury saw it differently.

IN THE BEGINNING

It all started years ago when the Morris family began to organize a Christmas event for the public at their previous home in Hayden. All the usual window dressing of Christmas in America was there, such as candy canes, Santa Claus, and beautiful lights. But the purpose and message of the event was the birth of Christ. Visitors to the Morris’s Christmas program, which would last from 6 to 8 p.m. for five nights before Christmas, would sing traditional hymns, learn the story of the nativity of Christ, and hear a message of faith. Even the candy canes given to visitors included an explicitly religious message. “Look at the Candy Cane, what do you see? Stripes that are red like the blood shed for me,” began the message on the candy canes’ tags.

The Morris family paid for the event out of their own pockets. They did not charge admission, or charge for food and drinks their visitors received. They did ask visitors for money to benefit local charities.

Actors dressed as Roman centurions “taxed” visitors to benefit the Emmett Paul Snyders Foundation — which benefits local cancer kids and their families, and the Children’s Village — a safe haven for kids suffering from abuse, neglect or severe family crisis.

TIME FOR CHANGE

The event was a yearly success. In the course of time though, the Morris family decided to move to a new home where they intended to stay for at least 15 years, Morris said during an interview with The Press. He said that among the usual questions associated with the househunting process, the Morrises considered this question: Where can we hold our Christmas program?

The home they chose — on Ferndale Drive near the intersection of Lancaster and Strahorn roads — put them on West Hayden Estates Homeowners Association turf. After he read the HOA’s CC&Rs and put an offer on the house in the first week of January 2015, Morris said he reached out to the organization to ask how he could better accommodate the neighborhood organization during the Morrises’ annual celebration. As the HOA’s leader at the time, Jennifer Scott, later admitted in court, Morris explained to her his faith in detail and said that the annual Christmas event was “his ministry” to the local public.

The Morris family bought their home from Larry and Chris Breazeal. In a sworn affidavit Jan. 24, 2018, Larry Breazeal said that sometime in January 2015 — after Morris’s conversation with Scott — she called him to ask if the Morrises were still planning to buy the Breazeals’ house. It had been on the market for five months and the Breazeals had lowered its price twice, he testified. During their conversation, Scott told Breazeal that the HOA board had met to draft a letter to Morris. Scott indicated to Breazeal that she “was distraught about the letter because there was a line at the bottom of the letter that they debated over and had decided to not include in the letter. Somehow the 2 board members that wrote the final draft, included a statement that talked about not wanting the Morris family to push their religious beliefs on others in the neighborhood due to there being non-Christians living here.”

Breazeal testified that he relayed the contents of the conversation to his wife shortly thereafter. She in turn spoke to Morris’s wife, Kristy, telling her that the Breazeals thought the HOA’s letter “seemed pretty prejudiced against the Christian religion.”

The final draft of that letter cited several sections of the CC&Rs which the HOA claimed prohibited the Morrises’ Christmas program. Concerns included lighting that “shall be restrained in its design,” blockage of traffic, and amplified sound.

THE FAITH FACTOR

However, the letter also said, “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 … 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.”

That language was similar to language of an earlier draft of the letter discovered during the trial, which read, “And finally, I am somewhat hesitant to bring up the fact that some of our residents are avowed atheists and I don’t even want to think of the problems that could bring up … 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.”

Morris, a lawyer, said the letters were drafted and rewritten by a number of people on the HOA board and were not the sole product of any one person. It was only through the litigation process that the Morrises learned that there were other drafts of the letter, Morris said.

Morris’s next-door neighbor, Angie Cox, testified in a Jan. 25, 2018, affidavit that during a phone conversation with Scott, “I asked Mrs. Scott what the real problem was and why they had not consulted the members about the attorney.” Cox testified that she had asked Scott, “‘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.’”

MEDIA WEIGHS IN

Morris has had his critics, such as Spokesman-Review columnist Shawn Vestal, who opined that Morris had concocted the furor out of vanity. On Nov. 10, 2015, Vestal wrote:

“Every year, the ginned-up War on Christmas returns — a fantasy persecution concocted by right-wing media and gobbled up by people who have trouble sharing … Morris’ victimhood was planned and plotted … It is, in short, a Christmas charade.” Vestal’s piece de resistance was to quote Fox News’s Todd Starnes, who sided with neighbors concerned about people coming into their neighborhood to celebrate Christmas. “I’m not too sure I’d have much holiday cheer if there was a camel munching on my mistletoe,” Starnes said in 2015.

However, conservative media stunts usually don’t get vindicated on all counts by a federal jury in Moscow, Idaho.

That may have been thanks to threats against Morris’s family that Cox described in her affidavit, such as a recording “of a neighbor who threatened to have him [Morris] murdered. Some neighbors openly referred to their family as ‘the enemy.’” She added: “I would describe the Board as a closely-knit group that I have labeled ‘vigilantes’ that was going to decide what was best for the rest of us.”

BACK FOR MORE

Believing that the HOA’s allegations were baseless and that he was legally free to hold the Christmas program, in 2016 Morris again invited the public to hear about Jesus Christ at his house. Morris said some neighbors intimidated people who attended the program. Foul language was directed at them, one had her car kicked, and profanity was directed at a grandmother and some young women who were told to “get out, this is our neighborhood.” These people were total strangers to Morris, he said. Four of them testified at his trial.

Cox testified that despite living immediately adjacent to the Morris house, “I could not hear any music or other noise when inside my house” during the Christmas program.

As for concerns about lighting, the section cited by the HOA pertains to permanent lighting such as security lights, not temporary lighting as during Christmas time, Morris said. The HOA’s president in 2016, Ron Taylor, admitted this to Morris during a conversation which Morris recorded and submitted as evidence during the trial. When Morris heard Taylor admit that the rule didn’t apply to Morris’s situation, he asked Taylor why the HOA persisted in coming after Morris. Taylor said, “Because someone in the association doesn’t like Christmas.”

For the past two Christmas seasons, Morris said he had a signed contract with the city of Hayden to allow attendees to park at Croffoot Park, where shuttles hired by Morris would deliver them to his driveway. He also paid for professional traffic directors to ensure that traffic flowed freely, plus a $2 million event insurance policy. That was all in addition to the expense of hiring actors, animals, and help to run the program, which drew thousands during the 6-8 p.m. daily window.

As an attorney of some means, Morris said he was uniquely positioned to take on the challenge that the discriminatory behavior presented him.

FREEDOM OF RELIGION

A Morris colleague, Richard Mast, is an attorney with Liberty Counsel in Lynchburg, Va. The Christian legal organization specializes in First Amendment issues on behalf of Christians and adherents of other faiths. Citing instances of religious discrimination against Jews, Muslims, and Christians in America, Mast said, “There’s a great deal of myth, smoke and mirrors surrounding the Establishment Clause, and what it permits and prohibits. The general cultural milieu is that people think that if it’s in public, I can’t express my faith. That’s not by accident. There are activists and organizations that want to project that, to make it culturally unacceptable for people to freely exercise their faith, whatever it may be.”

Mast said the Morris case is legally significant because it’s one of the first times where the free exercise of religion around Christmas time has gone in favor of the homeowner. Consequently, Morris’s case will have significant persuasive effects across the country, Mast told The Press. If the case gets appealed to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and the Morris family wins there, the case would be binding law across the 9th Circuit, which covers most of the western United States.

Morris pointed out that during litigation, the court acknowledged this was the first time it had seen U.S. Code 3604(b), 3604(c), and 3617 all at play in an HOA context. What makes that combination so rare is that generally a homeowner doesn’t have interaction with an HOA until he moves in, Morris said. U.S. Code 3604(b) pertains to discrimination in the provision of services before a sale. Usually those discriminated against in a home purchase don’t move in, he said.

U.S. Code 3617 deals with discrimination after individuals have moved in and are harassed, threatened and intimidated. Cases of religious discrimination before, during, and after the sale of a home are hard to find, Morris said. For that reason also, he said, the jury’s verdict may be widely influential for years to come.

Morris said there were instances when the HOA overlooked obvious nuisances in the neighborhood, such as massive fireworks in the middle of the road blocking traffic. There were also other instances when the HOA chose not to apply its rules, such as the one limiting the number of dogs per household. But it wasn’t just that the HOA was selectively enforcing its rules against the Morris family. “They were making up rules against us as part of that pretext” to discriminate on the basis of religion, Morris said.

COUNTERCLAIMS PENDING

Peter Smith, attorney for the HOA, said it’s too early for the HOA to comment on the case and its potential impacts because it is still awaiting word from the court on counterclaims it filed. Nevertheless, he said, “We look forward to seeing the final result once this case works its way through the court system.”

Benjamin Earwicker, administrator for the Idaho Commission on Human Rights, provided data on discrimination claims in Idaho. In fiscal year 2018, 91 percent of claims involving religious discrimination came from people other than Protestants (one complaint in FY18), Muslims (one case in FY18), and Jews (zero cases in FY18). The Human Rights Education Institute did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

The monetary compensation of $75,000 awarded by the federal jury cannot come close to covering the emotional toll the harassment and discrimination have taken on the family, Morris said. He will also lose thousands in home improvements he had made to fit his home for the Christmas program, he said.

Though the court upheld the Morris family’s First Amendment rights to share the Gospel message at Christmas, the HOA’s harassment may in fact have achieved its intended goal, he said: To drive the Morris family out of the neighborhood. Morris said the $75,000 will go toward helping them move.

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