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Homeowner wins legal fight over nativity with 200,000 Christmas lights and a camel

The Morris family decorates their home and property with more than 200,000 lights in Hayden, Idaho. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Morris

SPOKANE, Wash. (RNS) — Jeremy and Kristy Morris believe telling the story of Christmas is a ministry.

So they drape their home in Hayden, Idaho, with more than 200,000 lights and set up a live nativity — complete with a real camel — on their lawn.

Santa makes an appearance, too. So did some Roman centurions, who collected donations for charity.

The live nativity has been so popular that the couple pays for a shuttle so people can see the show.

And the people come, hundreds at a time. They take photos, drink cocoa, sing hymns and hear a short Christmas message before making way for the next group.

None of this, however, thrills their neighbors.

The Morris family and their homeowners’ association landed in a legal battle over the issue, and although the dispute was recently resolved in favor of the family, this year’s live nativity is on hold.

It all started in 2014 when the Morrises put on their first show, which then was in a different part of Hayden, about 45 minutes outside Spokane.

“At that first show we saw God’s hands move,” Jeremy Morris said.

Morris said he always struggled with what he was supposed to do for his Christian faith. Seeing families turn out in droves for his Christmas display helped him understand: this Christmas show was his calling. He could use it as a way to witness to people, he said.

So the couple decided to buy their current home, which is almost twice the size of their former home and had more room for the Christmas show. They told the West Hayden Estates Homeowners’ Association about their plans so the neighborhood could start preparing for the 2015 display.

That did not go well.

The Morrises received a letter warning that the Christmas lights show could lead to “expensive litigation” because it would break neighborhood contracts regarding lighting, property uses, sound and traffic.

The Morrises claim they aren’t breaking those rules.

One line in the letter made them suspect the dispute was also about religion.

“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 about the problems that could bring up,” the letter from the HOA read. 

Jeremy Morris, an attorney who once interned for a Christian legal firm, knew that fighting the HOA would be costly and time-consuming. After praying, the couple decided to fight.

“I made a big deal out of it because it happened to me,” he said. “But how many (other cases) are there that no one hears about? Maybe it’s a Christian flag or a statue of Mary.”

In 2017 the Morrises sued the HOA in U.S. District Court in Couer d’Alene, Idaho, for allegedly trying to block their Christmas display.

The HOA countersued. The jury found the association guilty of discriminating against the family during and after the purchase of their home. The Morrises were awarded $60,000 in compensatory damages and $15,000 in punitive damages in November by a federal jury.

Representatives from the HOA declined to comment.

The association is submitting papers to have the judgment dismissed, according to the court. The Morrises, meanwhile, are seeking to have their home de-annexed from the subdivision.

Richard Mast, an attorney with Liberty Counsel, the Christian legal organization where Jeremy Morris interned, told the Couer d’Alene Press that the Morris case is of great significance because it’s one of the first times when the free exercise of religion around Christmastime has gone in favor of the homeowner, adding that the case will have nationwide effects.

The father of two has decided to dedicate his life to fighting cases like his own, he said.

“So many Christians are saying, ‘Thank you for standing up — let me tell you what happened to me,'” he said. 

Meanwhile, the couple is making plans for the future. This week, Morris posted photos of sets for a future version of the nativity on Facebook.

“Big plans for our Christmas show as soon as we move out of this anti-Christian HOA,” he wrote.

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Tracy Simmons

116 Comments

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  • ” ……. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

    The homeowner has decided that his need to proselytize outweighs his seemingly moral responsibility to his actual — literal — few-feet-away — neighbors. If the homeowner answers to ‘a higher authority’ he might to need to remember that legal does not necessarily mean moral.

  • I can see the neighbor’s issue with a large gaudy display. Maybe a compromise allowing the religious aspect without so many lights.

  • I don’t think playing the religion card is applicable here as the light and noise pollution – at night when most folks are at home – is a valid issue itself. Please don’t make it a cry for religious freedom at the expense of his neighbor’s rights.

  • Isn’t Jesus footing the bill? He also has to pay someone to hang around the camel with a shovel. Anyway, I’m glad he didn’t get shut down by his control-freak neighbors.

  • This is more of the “poor persecuted Christians” meme at the expense of everyone else. Claiming it is about religion because someone mentioned religion is trying to make it about something that I’m pretty sure it isn’t, as their own comments indicate it’s about religion for THEM. They don’t really seem to care too much how their light display and CAMEL impacts their neighbors, which is a good indication of their mindset. They didn’t care about their agreements as part of their HOA, either.

    If they are witnessing to anything, it is about how little they are about their neighbors beyond seeing them as an opportunity to proselytize.

  • Did you intend to be so rude, or do you even realize you are being so rude?
    Christ spoke and chose Paul to continue His mission.

  • I will note however, that as much as this is allegedly about his faith and his witness, at least in the photo above, there is not one single article related to faith at all. The closest thing is the word Christmas.

  • Ha!
    Truth be told, I agree that these displays are obnoxious.
    There’s one thing to celebrate and decorate; it’s another thing to go crazy and inconvenience your neighbors.

  • “This is more of the ‘poor persecuted Christians’ meme at the expense of everyone else.”

    You probably should have read the actual opinion, kindly provided by the author as a citation, before utter that inanity:

    https://law.justia.com/cases/federal/district-courts/idaho/iddce/2:2017cv00018/38437/18

    “Claiming it is about religion because someone mentioned religion is trying to make it about something that I’m pretty sure it isn’t, as their own comments indicate it’s about religion for THEM.”

    Same there. The District Court for the District of Idaho summarizes the facts, and the lights and CAMEL (sic) were not relevant to the decision.

  • It appears that the case revolves around the HOA’s violations of Idaho’s Fair Housing Claims which, according to the record of the case began as they were trying to buy the home.

  • The HOA apparently only mentioned his non-Christian neighbors.

    That was something of a legal misstep for the HOA.

  • That’s really the thing. Jesus and his birth can be honored best without 200,000 lights that Bethlehem never had anyway.

  • My experience with HOAs is that you do not buy in “telling the HOA about your plans” to violate the covenants governing homes in an HOA development. This is not how buyers are supposed to behave. Granted, if you don’t want to live with any HOA, don’t buy into one. But, going in with the idea of thumbing your nose at what others abide by is not “Christian Witness”.

  • Christ speaks to me every day through his word. Even an atheist is spoken to by Him. They just deny it.

  • To be displayed at the house next door:

    The Great Kibosh of All Religions:

    Putting the kibosh on all religion in less than ten seconds: Priceless !!!

    • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Abraham i.e. the foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are non-existent.

    • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Moses i.e the pillars of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have no strength of purpose.

    • There was no Gabriel i.e. Islam fails as a religion. Christianity partially fails.

    • There was no Easter i.e. Christianity completely fails as a religion.

    • There was no Moroni i.e. Mormonism is nothing more than a business cult.

    • Sacred/revered cows, monkey gods, castes, reincarnations and therefore Hinduism fails as a religion.

    • Fat Buddhas here, skinny Buddhas there, reincarnated/reborn Buddhas everywhere makes for a no on Buddhism.

    • A constant cycle of reincarnation until enlightenment is reached and belief that various beings (angels?, tinker bells? etc) exist that we, as mortals, cannot comprehend makes for a no on Sikhism.

    Added free details available upon written request.

  • What a selfish @$$hole.

    But, look at the bright side. Some people will probably ask themselves, “What kind of god would need such a hard sell?”

  • ROFL No he does not you witch of deception. You are a False CHristian in spades and Christ will never speak to you and you would not hear anyway.

    You must renounce all and be Chaste in Christ or you will finish in Hades and fire as witches on steaks

  • Parker, my hubby agrees with you. He thinks these people have made a monument to themselves and questions whether they were trying to glorify God, or themselves

  • Christ bless you Morrison. I used to love my Nativity scene. It was the center of Christmas. Bring the Nativity scene back into Christianity.

  • Ha. Yes. I always wonder what it would be like (for the people on this page) to meet in a bar face to face. I think if politics was forbidden as a topic, we probably would agree more often than not.
    Anyway, I am not sure what the appropriate holiday greeting is from a catholic to a Jewish athiest on Christmas; but I wish you and your family well.

  • knowingly violate the HOA rules, getting opposition for it, then branding the whole association as “anti-Christian.” this is why more and more people are fed up with the hyper-sensitive evangelical “religious freedom warriors (RFWs).”

  • He wrote, looking in a mirror.

    Were you not a selfish @$$hole, you’d be posting somewhere where anti-religious claptrap is on-topic.

    Instead you’ve made a fetish out of annoying people you disagree with because, after all, it is all about YOU.

  • Good wishes, for this or any season, are what is important, always. The reason, or the words used, for this or any season, is not.

    The same to you and yours.

  • “Christ speaks to me every day through his word. Even an atheist is spoken to by Him. They just deny it.”

    I’m sure that millions of Christianites would also say . . .

    “Trump speaks to me every day through his Tweets. Even a liberal is spoken to by Him. They just deny it.”

    Oh well, at least those people have consistency . . . if they can believe that the Bible is a credible source of information, it’s understandable how they can also believe that Trump’s Tweets are a credible source of information.

  • On the contrary, according to some of the religiously inclined I follow the religions of atheism, global warming, and I’m a germist since I prefer sanitation and antibiotics to faith healing.

    So, the worst you can accuse me of is being a fellow proselytizer.

  • No, you’re a troll.

    You’re here because annoying people is fun for you.

    And I CAN accuse you of worse.

  • I am not new to posting comments, but am new to this site.

    Perhaps you pros here can confirm or refute a suspicion I have. Are posters Mark Connelly, HpO, and Mrs Jane Nesbitt all the same person? Or are they simply similar in their practice of 1) having the last word, 2) resorting to sarcasm or downright nastiness, 3) being a know-it-all, and 4) criticizing and nitpicking everything?

  • But … but … but … I thought Jesus had forbidden his followers to engage in splashy displays of their piety. 

    Oh wait — I’m right! He did

    “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven. So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you…. 

    “Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18

    So much for doing all this in the name of Christianity. 

  • I’m aware of the controversy, but the fact remains that those words are in the Christians’ New Testament, and they claim to revere them. On that basis alone, they can (and should!) he held accountable for obeying them. 

  • No, they should not. Why? See below:

    The Apostles’ Creed 2018: (updated by yours truly and based on the studies of
    historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

    Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
    and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
    human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven??

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
    named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
    girl named Mary. (Some say he was a
    mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of
    Jerusalem.

    Said Jesus’ story was embellished and “mythicized” by
    many semi-fiction writers. A descent
    into Hell, a bodily resurrection and
    ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

    Amen

    (references used are available upon request)

  • The real camel would be the deal breaker if it were my HOA. Lights and obnoxious sectarianism are fairly commonplace and expected. But ruminant poo smell and exploitation of desert animals in frigid climates is one step too far for me.

  • FYI – it gets cold in the desert. AND, every once and a great while depending on where u are u may get a frost or snowfall.

  • Idaho can be really cold in the winter. Camel dung probably does not freeze that quickly. Not a big fan of using live animals as props like that.

  • I’ll be happy to explain it all to you.

    Mark Connelly is just the latest posting name that he is using. Otherwise, you are right. Of course, he will deny it, and probably flag me for saying what a lot of people know.

    HpO is his own guy. He is not one of the other’s multiple identities.

    Mrs. Nesbit is probably another identity for someone else who has posted numerous times under numerous names. She is not either of the other two.

  • No.

    Your downright nastiness, nitpicking, and criticizing are duly noted.

    Now, Ben in Oakland will have the last word.

  • “I am not new to posting comments, but am new to this site.”

    Well, if a month is “new”.

    I see you were a frequent poster at National Catholic Reporter until they bailed.

    If you are looking for that sort of thing, I would recommend:

    http://www.aggiornamento.net/

    Monica DeAngelis was a frequent poster at NCR.

    She is some notches left of NCR, pooh-poohing for example the virgin birth:

    http://www.aggiornamento.net/2018/11/07/proud-mary-the-gospel-of-james/

    I should warn you she will often insist on having the last word, resorting to sarcasm or downright nastiness, being a know-it-all, and criticizing and nitpicking everything.

    Her elderly sidekick, Robert Montefiore, is best characterized as Krampus.

    Both are prone to banning folks.

    The other place you may choose to hang your hat is:

    http://bilgrimage.blogspot.com/

    which is run by Dr. William D. Lindsey.

    He was an occasional poster at NCR, is openly gay, taught as a “Catholic” theologian for a few years until he stepped across the line too openly and too defiantly, and ended his own career.

    That blog is less eclectic than the DeAngelis effort, with a cast of a dozen or so who do spend a lot of time patting each other on the back.

    Good luck.

  • I’ll bet if you were the neighbor of one of these massive displays and you had to put up with the traffic jams and not being able to leave your home or get to your home for several weeks every year, you’d get tired of it too. The neighbors in these cases can’t even have their own family celebrations because no one can get to their driveway or even their street. It’s the ultimate in selfishness. And it wouldn’t matter what the massive display was for. Evangelicals have become some of the worst at thinking the laws and rules don’t or shouldn’t apply to them, and that they should be able to do anything they want.

  • It seems to me this is more a case of having your cake and eating it too. All I can say is if I felt called to moving my residence to accommodate a larger living Nativity play, I would have not headed to a somewhat exclusive suburb with over-sized homes to do so that is constrained by a number of rules and regulations as to living there. And given that they also provide transportation to view their display, I would have moved outside city limits to property with a small barn for a more authentic re-creation. And I would have ditched Santa and the centurions too.

  • As to “traffic jams and not being able to leave your home” – he provides shuttles.

    ” The neighbors in these cases can’t even have their own family
    celebrations because no one can get to their driveway or even their
    street.” is imaginary.

    ” Evangelicals have become some of the worst at thinking the laws and rules don’t or shouldn’t apply to them …” – apparently the laws and rules don’t apply to the Morrisses, they won in court.

  • That there is a “a somewhat exclusive suburb with over-sized homes” is not in evidence, nor is it germane to the legal questions.

    So, what DID you do?

  • You must really live somewhere really upscale cuz that sure looks pretty upscale to me. And it may not be germane to the 2 legal questions (for clarification one of which was not answered by that specific court). But if I was considering such a subdivision and I didn’t like the rules, I would simply move elsewhere. So germane to what most people would also do.

    But the house and lights appear to be mostly likely understood as symbols of conspicuous consumerism or a wannabe entrant for that Christmas light TV contest. Not my idea of providing symbolic context/background to the nativity story. So not germane to legal questions but germane to a theological understanding and living out of the gospel message.

    And what did I do? Wrapped presents for the 40 families our church provides for. Sponsored one child for said event. Next year will do more and also ring bells for the Sally Ann Christmas Cheer campaign. But time diverted to divesting and cleaning/clearing out my mother’s furniture /belongings and finding a variety of organizations that would take different types of donations for everything that did not need to be garbaged. And more importantly, what I do do year round rather than just Christmas.

  • Although “… that sure looks pretty upscale to me”, we are not even assured it is the neighborhood in question.

    The issue “… I didn’t like the rules ….” did not come up at trial.

    I cheated, of course, and read the actual court case referenced in the text.

    If it was “… germane to a theological understanding and living out of the gospel message”, the various creches across Christendom during the 12 Days of Christmas would be absent.

    “And what did I do?”

    About the issue raised in the article, of course.

  • one – photo is courtesy of Jeremy Morris – unless that is the smaller house they lived in before. I also read the case which is why I know the first issue was not addressed by the court. I brought up what I would do because sometimes you can be right technically but still do the wrong thing. Given that the court felt obliged to construe the complaint liberally rather than narrowly and based on two letters that had to be equally construed with no other hard evidence supporting their claim other than hearsay along with Morris’ failure to also pursue filing for a Human Rights complaint, makes it a squishy ruling. (Morris played his legal cards quite selectively which may have changed the outcome). In another scenario with the same rules, Dr. Ford would have been believed and Brett Kavanaugh would not be a SC justice. Actually the news items is clearer – that there was more than just the Christmas lights and it was upscale enough that other homeowners were concerned about the riff-raff being brought into the neighborhood. My guess is that the HOA would have been equally up at arms with a similar ostentatious, well-viewed living Santa’s workshop. Had it been a more traditional scaled down non-living Nativity display, there likely would have been no complaints. If so, religious discrimination would have been clearer. But round 2 will tell the tale as to whether the ruling stands.

    Theologically neither 200000 lights nor Santa and the Centurions are part of any creche I have ever seen or align with either gospel version – your argument doesn’t pass muster. It is equivalent to a gnome rendition of the creche.

  • The court applied the Idaho law to the facts, which is what courts should feel obliged to do.

    Everyone plays her or his legal cards quite selectively unless their counsel is incompetent.

    Dr. Ford was not believed because her recollections were contradicted by the facts and witnesses.

    Have a nice day.

  • ROFL No he does not you witch of deception. You are a False CHristian in spades and Christ will never speak to you and you would not hear anyway.

  • No relation with you HEATHEN. Jesus will burn you in HELL you FAKE Christian with your FAKE blessings.

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