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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Jury awards $75,000 to Hayden couple in ‘war on Christmas’ lawsuit

Jeremy Morris stands next to his wife, Kristy, and their daughter, Savannah Claire, 3, in front of their home Dec. 18, 2014, in Hayden. Morris has sued his homeowners association for religious discrimination. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

A North Idaho jury awarded a Hayden-area couple $75,000 last week, ruling a homeowners association engaged in religious discrimination in a story billed as a “war on Christmas” by some national news outlets.

The jury returned its unanimous verdict last Tuesday in favor of Jeremy and Kristy Morris, who in 2017 sued the West Hayden States First Addition Homeowners Association in U.S. District Court in Coeur d’Alene, alleging the HOA tried to block an extravagant Christmas program from taking place in their neighborhood. The HOA, in turn, countersued.

In their decision, the jury found the homeowners association discriminated against the Morrises during and after the purchase of their home in the 13000 block of Ferndale Drive. It also found that a letter sent by the HOA in 2014 that said the Christmas program would violate the HOA’s covenants, conditions and restrictions showed a “preference that a non-religious individual” should purchase the home.

The jury awarded the couple $60,000 in compensatory damages and $15,000 in punitive damages. An attorney for the defense did not immediately return calls Monday seeking comment on whether there was a plan to appeal.

The origins of the lawsuit, which made national headlines on Fox News in 2015 after Jeremy Morris contacted the station and several other media outlets, began in 2014 when the HOA board of directors drafted the letter to the Morrises saying if they wanted to move to the neighborhood, they’d have to scrap a plan to hold a five-day Christmas extravaganza on their property – an event that regularly drew thousands of people and featured elaborate Christmas lights, decorations and live music.

The letter, according to the Morrises, was written after the couple contacted the HOA in late December 2014, letting them know their intention to purchase a home in the neighborhood. The lawsuit states the couple reviewed the association’s restrictions and found their planned Christmas program, which the couple say also raises money for families of cancer patients, didn’t violate any rules.

“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,” the letter reads. “We have worked hard to keep our area peaceful, quiet, and clean.”

For their reasoning, the board said the Christmas program would violate several rules, including noise limitations and lighting restrictions that would be “excessively” bright. Near the end of the letter, however, the HOA mentions “Christians” and “faith,” something Morris and his attorneys clung to as a clear violation of his family’s religious preference.

“And finally, I am somewhat hesitant in bringing up the fact that some of our residents are non-Christians or of another faith,” the board wrote. “And I don’t even want to think of the problems that could bring up.”

Reached by phone Monday, Jeremy Morris suggested the crux of the HOA’s complaint was rooted in religious discrimination veiled as a general complaint about nuisances. He said he was pleased the jury agreed, when they ruled unanimously on the four separate claims.

“The letter talks just like normal people talk every day,” he said. “Normally, people don’t say, ‘Listen, you’re fired because I don’t like the color of your skin.’ ”

Still, critics of the lawsuit, including Spokesman-Review columnist Shawn Vestal, said the Morrises’ legal complaint was a strategically concocted media stunt meant to further the narrative that mainstream media and the political left were at war with Christmas.

Supporting this narrative was a Coeur d’Alene Press story from 2015 – a year and a half before the Morrises filed suit – in which the homeowner admits he picked the particular home to “conduct his Christmas event.” He further told a Press reporter that when he received a letter from the HOA’s then-attorney Scott Poorman, it triggered “stage one of the media strategy.”

“So I contacted Fox News,” he told the Press.

Morris said Monday the quote was taken out of context and meant more as a joke or off-hand comment. He admitted that while he did email Fox News, and tag other media outlets, it was nothing more than a “late-night decision.”

“The only media I ever, ever, ever contacted, that is to say reached out to, was one time with Fox News,” he said. “I sent an email that was probably five sentences. And one of their reporters called me.”

The rest, he said, happened as a result of the attention garnered by the Fox News story. He said he now has a distrust for many news outlets which he deemed had bungled the story.

And now, even after the jury has ruled in favor, he said he and his wife plan to move from the neighborhood. The next piece of land, he said, will have more room for future Christmas programs, which he said have ballooned in popularity as a result of the media attention.

He’s also not ruling out the possibility of living in another HOA neighborhood.

“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.”

Editors note: This story was updated Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2018 to clarify who originally penned a letter to the Morrises.