An Idaho family harassed for putting on an annual Christmas program that featured a nativity scene, Santa Claus and a camel has been awarded $75,000 by a jury — and plans to use the money to move to a less hostile neighborhood.
Jeremy and Kristy Morris alleged in a lawsuit filed last year that the West Hayden Estates Home Owner’s Association (HOA) “unlawfully discriminated” against the family based on their religion.
Jeremy Morris told the Daily News on Tuesday that “freedom to worship” and “right to property” are two of the most treasured protections that a person could have.
“Somehow our homeowners’ association managed to violate both those rights,” he told The News.
The trouble started in 2015 when the family moved into the area and announced it would be continuing a tradition that was started the year before in a different home.
Morris notes in a letter to the board that the Christmas program, which lasts five days, would not disrupt the neighborhood and would include exterior lights, free hot chocolate, a cotton candy machine, caroling, a “wise man” and a “docile” camel named Dolly.
“The goal was not to get permission for something that I could already do,” he wrote. “Rather, I was proactively reaching out so as to minimize any impact to neighbors and the subdivision.”
The lawsuit states that the purpose of the program at their Hayden home “was to spread the Gospel and love of Jesus Christ to the community by raising funds for two local charities that aid children suffering from homeless or cancer.”
Neighbors expressed concern over the nature of the program, according to court documents.
A letter sent by an HOA official to Jeremy Morris in 2015 indicated that “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.”
At one point the Morris family received a letter from an HOA lawyer stating that the program will be “offensive to the senses.” The letter threatened legal action.
A jury favored the Morris family following a two-week federal trial that ended in late October. The 85-year-old “Santa,” who Morris says is a star of the program, testified during the trial.
“He insists he is Santa Claus,” Morris said. “His mother passed away from cancer, and that’s why he was drawn to our program.”
Morris wonders how anyone could oppose the program, especially considering the money that it raised for charity.
“I don’t think there could be anything more despicable than a group of people, a group of elitistis, who would put their own bigoted, prejudiced views ahead of the suffering and infirmities of children,” Morris said.
Morris said there were complaints about the house’s Christmas lights.
“Other homes may have Christmas lights on for 5-6 hours a day for a month, we only had them on for 10 hours for the entire year,” he said.
He said there were shuttles that escorted people to and from his home, and that the program did not create any traffic issues for the area. He said that there were about 150-200 people on the property at any given time and emphasized they did not cause any disruptions for the street or the neighborhood.
The program went on as scheduled in both 2015 and 2016, but not without threats and constant harassment, according to the lawsuit. Attempts to interfere with the festivities included a videotaped death threat by a neighbor and “coordinated efforts calling sheriff’s deputies numerous times for legally parked vehicles on public side streets,” the lawsuit alleges.
A threat was posted to the show’s event page suggesting that Morris “should stock up on guns at a local gun show,” according to the lawsuit.
In light of the harassment and discrimination, the Morris family was awarded $60,000 in compensatory damages and $15,000 in punitive damages. The HOA has filed a countersuit.
The family is planning on using the money to move to a different neighborhood in order to continue the tradition in 2019.