Jeremy Morris won his four-year fight with his homeowners association over his Christmas light display after a jury ruled he was facing religious discrimination — but Mr. Morris appears to be losing the broader war.
Despite the jury verdict, the northern Idaho man says 2018 will be the second year in a row he’s canceling his Christmas setup, while he goes searching for a new house in a location where his live camel named Dolly won’t run afoul of homeowner association rules and where his patrons won’t be harassed by angry neighbors.
“I plan on calling it New Bethlehem. It may start next Christmas. It could be several years. But we hope to do it as quickly as possible,” Mr. Morris told The Washington Times. “It will happen.”
As the Christmas season dawns, all is not merry and bright in neighborhoods across the country where those looking to prominently celebrate are clashing with those who prefer the holiday more muted.
For Mr. Morris, it meant a protracted legal battle over his program, which runs for a few days a year and, in addition to the live nativity scene complete with the camel, also features caroling, Santa Claus, warm cocoa and candy canes, and more than 200,000 lights.
The West Hayden Estates Homeowners Association Board had initially opposed his even buying the house, and, after he moved in and began the program, he says neighbors began to harass him and the throngs of people that came to see his home.
Guests were targeted over parking and street traffic, with neighbors yelling as they drove by and even taking photos of their vehicles and children.
He says death threats were made.
A jury sided with Mr. Morris late last month, saying the homeowner’s association showed an antipathy from the start toward his enthusiastic celebration of Christian beliefs, beginning with a 2014 letter saying if he wanted to move into the neighborhood he couldn’t do his Christmas show.
The jury awarded $75,000 to Mr. Morris.
But other legal claims are still being fought out from the homeowners association which countersued.
The homeowner’s association says the live camel violates livestock rules, and collecting $6,000 in fundraising attached to his program means he’s using his home for a business purpose.
Mr. Morris said the funds he raised went to children dealing with cancer.
Still, all of it has become a bit much for Mr. Morris, who said he’s going to move and take his show elsewhere.
The West Hayden homeowners association didn’t respond to a request for comment after the jury verdict.
But last year Brindee Lee Collins, who represented the HOA, told The Times it never intentionally discriminated against Mr. Morris, and the board — as well as the neighborhood — consists largely of those who share the same faith as the Morris family and celebrate Christmas.
Mr. Morris, though, said they never offered to settle the dispute.
Mat Staver, founder of Liberty Counsel, said Mr. Morris got a good outcome.
His organization witnessed an increase in anti-Christmas sentiment back in 2003 and began spreading awareness of the phenomenon, representing clients and also publishing a list of which retailers celebrate Christmas and others that censor it.
On the bright side, though, he said there has been a huge difference in how society views Christmas with President Trump being in office.
“He said during his campaign he was going to bring Christmas back and he has done more than any president in modern history to acknowledge Christmas and to take specific actions to honor Christmas,” Mr. Staver said. “That kind of sets a theme.”
Robert Tuttle, a law professor at George Washington University, said holiday property disputes are actually fairly common, but are usually filed under nuisance law.
“Religion-based Fair Housing Act claims that focus on the conduct of individuals while in possession of their home … those are pretty rare,” he told The Times.
Across the country in Madison, Mississippi, the Richardson family puts up a display including more than 250 inflatables, more than 100,000 lights which are synced to music, and a 23-foot animated tree.
They’ve entered “The Great Light Fight,” a reality show airing on ABC on Monday — but they’ve also faced nuisance complaints from their neighbors over noise level and traffic flow.
They’ve taken steps to accommodate neighbors, including using their website to direct guests where to enter their neighborhood, leaving one street for residents’ use to avoid traffic congestion.