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Shawn Vestal: The Morris family’s ‘War on Christmas’ got them exactly what they wanted – publicity

Jeremy Morris stands next to his wife Kristy and their daughter Savannah Claire, 3, in front of their home in Hayden on Thursday, December 18, 2014. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Jeremy Morris stands next to his wife Kristy and their daughter Savannah Claire, 3, in front of their home in Hayden on Thursday, December 18, 2014. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

The Christmas-loving Morrises, of Hayden, have again donned their robes as victims of religious persecution.

The family – whose extravagant carnival of 200,000 Christmas lights, a live-animal Nativity scene, bused-in visitors and amplified music understandably annoyed their neighbors – will now be represented pro bono by a high-powered law firm asking the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn a judge’s ruling that they were not subject to religious discrimination.

They had originally sued their homeowners association, alleging religious discrimination in the HOA’s objections to the Christmas displays. A jury found in their favor and awarded them $75,000 in damages. But last month, Idaho U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill overturned that verdict and slashed the damages to $4, finding there was no legally sufficient basis for the verdict.

Before the conservative media elevate them to the rank of heroes in the “War on Christmas,” let’s consider Winmill’s view of the credibility of those presenting Jeremy and Kristy Morris as religious-freedom martyrs.

“Almost uniformly,” he wrote, “Plaintiffs’ witnesses did not present credible evidence that held up under cross-examination.”

This was just one of the many reasons Winmill cited, in a ruling April 4, for overturning the jury verdict. The move was dramatically unusual; Winmill said he would only do so in a case where the jury’s verdict was utterly unsupported by facts.

Now the law firm First Liberty, which takes on religious discrimination cases all over the country, is representing the Morrises and has filed a notice to appeal with the 9th Circuit.

Jeremy Dys, an attorney with the firm, said Winmill erred in tossing the jury’s verdict – both on the merits and on the decision to ignore the jury.

“We tend to want to respect juries in this country,” he said.

A key piece of evidence in the case is a letter the West Hayden Estates First Addition Homeowners Association sent to the Morrises in 2015, when they first learned of the plans for the Christmas display. In a draft and then a revision of the letter, the HOA cited a number of rules the display would violate, and also expressed concerns about the fact that some members were not Christian, saying “I don’t even want to think of the problems that could bring up.”

Winmill ruled that an “ordinary reader” would conclude that the letter was an attempt to “respect religious pluralism” and the possible impression that non-Christians in the HOA would feel Christians were being allowed to violate neighborhood rules.

But Dys says this letter clearly and improperly injects religious considerations into the case.

“The HOA could very easily have said, ‘I’m sorry, our rules … don’t allow Christmas lights like this,’ ” Dys said. Instead, “They rooted their opposition in religious reasons.”

Dys noted that Winmill contradicted himself, because he had ruled earlier, at the summary judgment stage of the case, that the letter itself was good enough reason to allow the case to proceed to be heard before a jury – meaning he did not then view the factual case as completely baseless.

Winmill himself agrees with this assessment. In his ruling, he wrote, “In retrospect, the Court believes its earlier decision was in error. … Far from being intolerant, the January 2015 Letter’s religious reference was an attempt to respect religious pluralism.”

Dys said his firm has taken on several similar “religious freedom” cases, in which religious rights are affected by the quasi-governmental actions of homeowners associations.

I told Dys that the whole exercise seems like an effort to get attention in the conservative sphere of victimization – to become a warrior in the War on Christmas. When the case first came up, Jeremy Morris was on Fox News in what seemed like a matter of minutes. Additionally, the notion that the homeowners in Hayden were discriminating against Christians seems like a huge stretch.

A much simpler, more believable explanation, in my view, is that the neighbors didn’t like the display for obvious reasons – because it was a big, loud, garish, bothersome hoo-ha in the midst of their neighborhoods, including a camel and a donkey, for heaven’s sake. It seems like a stunt intended to produce exactly what it has produced: a big fight leading to lot of attention for the Morrises as culture warriors.

Dys said if it was just a publicity stunt: “It was a really expensive publicity stunt.” Going to court put them at risk of substantial financial penalties or being ordered to pay the attorneys fees of the defendants – which they were.

“They could have bought a page in the Wall Street Journal to advertise, instead,” Dys said.

The Morris case has a long, complicated history, and includes lots of bad blood. Perhaps the Liberty First appeal will succeed, and deepen that history. We’ll see. In the meantime, we have Winmill’s thoroughgoing, unambiguous rejection of the religious-persecution argument to consider.

Winmill found that there was “no legally sufficient basis” for the jury’s verdict – none, even when “all reasonable inferences” are drawn in the Morrises’ favor. He noted that the Morrises had held two Christmas celebrations after the supposedly discriminatory letter was sent, and that many of the HOA board members were themselves Christian, including the wife of a pastor.

He found the damages issued by the jury met the standard of being “grossly excessive or monstrous, clearly not supported by the evidence, or only based on speculation or guesswork.”

He found the trial had been “infected” by the Morrises’ unreliable and exaggerated testimony that they had been threatened by their neighbors, including an alleged death threat. On this question and others, Winmill wrote, Jeremy Morris “was not credible” – full stop. His testimony was “riddled with inconsistencies.” In some instances, Morris’ testimony contradicted what he had said on Facebook and in other places.

Morris was aggressively confrontational from the outset, and threatened to sue repeatedly in conflicts with his neighbors. The picture of him that emerges, from the judge’s ruling and everything else, is less that of a persecuted victim than someone who picked a fight and then rushed to Fox News to play “War on Christmas” when he got one.

Now, it seems, the fight goes on.