Christmas will be merry and bright for an Idaho family this year after a court upheld their right to host an annual five-night Nativity program at their home.
A federal jury in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, unanimously ruled in favor of Jeremy and Kristy Morris in late October, awarding them $75,000 in damages and concluding a four-year dispute with the couple’s homeowners association.
“It’s a very stunning victory for [the Morrises], and it sends a very strong message to some of the other homeowners associations that they ought to be more cautious,” Mat Staver, chairman of the legal group Liberty Counsel, told me.
Before moving to their current home in the West Hayden neighborhood of Coeur d’Alene, the Morrises began holding a public Christmas program in their front yard, complete with an elaborate lights display, live music, actors, and animals to share the story of the birth of Jesus. They paid for the event out-of-pocket, did not charge for admission, and gave all donations to local charities benefiting childhood cancer victims and providing safe haven for children suffering abuse.
When the family decided to buy a new home in West Hayden, Jeremy Morris contacted the local homeowners association saying he intended to continue offering the program at their new home. In early 2015, the HOA board sent a letter saying he would have to scrap the Christmas event if he bought a West Hayden home.
“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,” wrote an HOA official, noting the program would violate noise and light restrictions. But the letter also mentioned the family’s faith: “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.”
Despite the pushback, the Morrises bought the house and held the program as usual. A year later, they added 10 more miles of light strands, a camel and goats, and 27 live Bible character actors, according to Morris. In response, some neighbors became vigilantes, reportedly throwing snowballs at buses hired to transport attendees, yelling “Get out, this is our neighborhood,” and kicking cars. Angie Cox, a next-door neighbor who testified in court in favor of the Morrises, said one neighbor threatened to have Jeremy Morris murdered, and others called him “the enemy.”
In January 2018, Jeremy Morris filed a lawsuit against the HOA for religious discrimination and property right violations, asking for $250,000 to “compensate Mr. and Mrs. Morris fully for their shock, humiliation, embarrassment, inconvenience, and economic loss.” The HOA filed a countersuit soon after. Morris, an attorney, represented himself in court proceedings.
Staver told me that animosity against people with bold Christmas displays is partly because of an anti-Christian sentiment and partly a not-in-my-backyard attitude: “Some people don’t want the Christian message, and that’s why they oppose it. And there’s others who just don’t want the neighborhood traffic.”
Despite the court victory, the Morrises plan to move from West Hayden to a home that can accommodate the swelling popularity of their Christmas program.
“Our family will live wherever we want to live to spread the message of Jesus Christ and the birth of our Savior,” Jeremy Morris told The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash. “We’re looking forward. We’re positive. We’re excited.”