Liberties Reporting on First Amendment freedoms

Neighbors vs. the Nativity

Religious Liberty | A Christian homeowner wins the right to share the real meaning of Christmas
by Samantha Gobba
Posted 12/04/18, 05:06 pm

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.”

Associated Press/Photo by Joshua L. Jones/Athens Banner-Herald Associated Press/Photo by Joshua L. Jones/Athens Banner-Herald A Chick-fil-A in Athens, Ga.

Chickening out

Chick-fil-A is once again facing backlash for its CEO’s beliefs about marriage. Officials at Rider University in New Jersey removed the chain from a survey asking students what restaurant they would like on campus, because they said the company’s record is “widely perceived to be in opposition to the LGBTQ community.” In a survey last year, Chick-fil-A was Rider students’ top choice.

The school acknowledged that some may see its decision as a “form of exclusion,” but it wanted to be “faithful to our values of inclusion.” Administrators plan to hold a campus forum on the issue, and Chick-fil-A has issued a response, saying it has “no policy of discrimination against any group.”

This isn’t the first time school administrators and government officials have tried to keep Chick-fil-A out of various locations due to CEO Dan Cathy’s reputation for supporting Biblical sexual ethics. The University of New Mexico and Elon University in North Carolina held a vote on whether to expel Chick-fil-A. Denver tried to keep Chick-fil-A out of its airport, while politicians in Boston and Chicago tried to deny the restaurant operating permits. In the end, Chick-fil-A ended up winning in all those cases. Time will tell if Rider University students get their wish to “Eat Mor Chikin.” —Rachel Lynn Aldrich

Facebook/Village of Airmont, NY Facebook/Village of Airmont, NY

Zoning out

A New York town is using zoning restrictions and building codes to deliberately “dissuade Orthodox Jewish residents from staying or moving [in],” claims a federal lawsuit filed last month.

Central United Talmudic Academy of Monsey purchased 21 acres of property in 2016 that other groups had used as a children’s school and day camp for 20 years. But since Central UTA purchased it, Airmont, N.Y., officials have blocked the academy from operating a school there or constructing additional buildings. And the Suffern Central School District has denied Central UTA children transportation and special services that it provided to other schools that previously operated on the property.

The Journal News in White Plains reported last year that Airmont residents were also rallying to stop the school, arguing that the up to 2,000 students it would eventually serve—equivalent to nearly one-quarter of the town’s population—would put too much stress on roads and utilities in the small town. Local government officials continue to insist that the town’s laws are being applied fairly.

It isn’t the first time that the community has been accused of anti-Semitism. Airmont was sued by the U.S. government when it incorporated in 1991 over zoning restrictions on places of worship that federal authorities alleged intentionally excluded Orthodox Jewish citizens. The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed. Then the federal government, with different private plaintiffs, sued Airmont again in 2005. That case ended when the town agreed it would not use zoning laws to disrupt the religious exercise of Orthodox Jews in the community. But that consent decree expired in 2011. First Liberty, which represents the school along with the law firm of Whiteman Osterman & Hanna, alleges Airmont is back at it again. First Liberty attorneys claim they have uncovered potentially illegal practices and are planning further litigation. —R.L.A.

Samantha Gobba

Samantha reports on the pro-life movement for WORLD Digital.

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Comments

  • Xion's picture
    Xion
    Posted: Wed, 12/05/2018 03:45 am

    A fascinating thing about liberal logic is how they press emphatically to accomplish precisely the opposite of what they say.  They exclude Chick-fil-A in the name of inclusion.  They're intolerant of Christian expression around Christmas in the name of tolerance.  My daughter teaches preschool in southern California and the kids are allowed to make menorahs and talk about Kwansa and listen to reindeer music, but even instrumental music in the background which hints at the true meaning of the Christmas causes parents to go into an uproar.  Apparently they know enough about the bible to be outraged.  She has been written up several times for the attrocity of songs like Joy to the World and Away in the Manger.  There is a reason for this.  It is because Christ's words are true and truth carries the weight of reality.  False religions are so much more tolerable.

  • West Coast Gramma's picture
    West Coast Gramma
    Posted: Thu, 12/06/2018 12:21 pm

    In Agreement with Xion: You are absolutely correct in all you say. You have described the current condition very well. I want to add that as Christians, we tend to forget that ours is a very radical religion. Although we are taught to love everyone (which by itself is radical), in doctrine the Christian Bible is very exclusive. It promotes Christ the King and him alone. The United States and western nations historically embraced Christianity as a kind of national religion culturally. The Judeo/Christian moral code was the norm. Now we are in the era of rebellion. Our society, as Psalm 2 states so clearly, is in the middle of ridding itself of the Christian code: "They say, 'Let's tear off the shackles they've put on us! Let's free ourselves from their ropes!'" (Psa 2:3 NET) Jesus always taught that his followers would not have it easy. He promised we would be persecuted. He said that the way the world treated him (crucifixion) would be the way it would treat his followers. He commanded his followers to pick up their cross daily. Yes, it's very hard today. Challenges for Christians include finding ways to love our "enemies," and to pray for them without embracing actions the Lord forbids. Christians also need to come to grips with the fact that Christianity is a religion. We live in a nation whose Constitution permits freedom of worship. We need to fight secularly for our freedom of worship, while at the same time fighting for the secular freedom of worship of all minority religions. And we must somehow do so while loving and praying for those who persecute us (Mat 5:44). (I wonder if Christ knew what he was saying?) I believe our era of entitlement is over. We are currently just another unpopular religion, although the level of persecution here has not reached what it is for our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world, where they endure being murdered for the name of Christ their King.

  • Deb O's picture
    Deb O
    Posted: Fri, 12/07/2018 10:12 am

    100% agree, West Coast Gramma. A couple years back, my pastor had all the teenagers and millenials stand up in our congregation and said "You will see real persecution in your lifetime" and encouraged them to strengthen themselves in the Lord. 

  • Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Fri, 12/07/2018 02:16 pm

    I am not entirely comfortable with the Morrises' behavior.  Stipulating that HOA's can be quite obnoxious, and that I do not know all of the details of the affair, I can see how the neighbors might be annoyed even in a rural community.  Thousands of people apparently attended, unless I read the referenced article wrong.  Solomon cautioned against obnoxiously blessing one's neighbors.  Paul said that we should seek peace with all men to the best of our ability.  So I am not comfortable with this.

  • Tabitha
    Posted: Fri, 12/07/2018 05:53 pm

    I agree with Brendan.  I am a Christian living in an HOA.  One chooses to give up certain liberties for HOA benefits and the Morrises were clearly informed.  The extensive lighting and traffic could be dangerous, not simply annoying.  While many people were blessed by the display, the family devalued Christian forbearance for their neighbors.  In contrast, Jesus' actual nativity was incredibly obscure. 

  • Hans's picture
    Hans
    Posted: Sat, 12/08/2018 05:49 am

    I agree with Tabitha and Brendan. HOAs do seem mostly to exist for overbearing people to police their neighbours, but in this case I can’t imagine not being annoyed by literal buses of people being brought into my neighbourhood every night for a month. A better example of HOAs trampling on religious liberties might be the multiple examples where they have attempted to forbid observant Jews from placing mezuzoth on their door frames. There seems to be a far more obvious reason why in this case the HOA was displeased with this Christmas display than quashing religious liberty.  

  • Kris
    Posted: Sun, 12/09/2018 01:16 pm

    For 5 days, 2 hours a night, not a month.

     

  • Kris
    Posted: Sun, 12/09/2018 01:14 pm

    The "active" part of the Christmas display was for 5 consecutive days for 2 hours a night 6-8 pm, as the sign in the picture says.  I think that would be acceptable for many neighbors.  It was not for a whole month.

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