The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is being asked to restore a jury’s unanimous verdict against a homeowners’ association in a dispute over Christmas lights.
First Liberty Institute filed the appeal on behalf of Jeremy and Kristy Morris, who are battling their HOA over their annual display of holiday lights at their home in Hayden, Idaho.
A jury found the HOA targeted the Morrises with religious and other discrimination. It awarded them $60,000 in compensatory damages and $15,000 in punitive damages.
The jury found the HOA revealed a “preference that a non-religious individual” should purchase the home the Morrises bought.
But last month, Idaho District Judge B. Lynn Winmill threw out the jury’s decision, ruling that the West Hayden Estates First Addition Homeowners Association did not discriminate.
Winmill instead blamed the couple for having Christmas displays in 2015 and 2016 that were too large.
First Liberty said it is asking the 9th Circuit to reinstate the jury’s verdict.
“The jury found that the Homeowners’ Association discriminated against the Morris family by repeatedly attempting to shut down the family’s Christmas display and childrens’ charity fundraiser,” Jeremy Dys, deputy general counsel for First Liberty Institute said. “The jury in this case recognized clear religious hostility by the HOA – there was no good reason for a judge to overrule them.”
Over the years, the family had hosted a Christmas display at their home and asked visitors “for donations to charities that assist children with cancer and children who have suffered abuse and neglect,” the institute explained.
“In 2014, when the Morrises planned to move to a new home, they let the West Hayden States First Addition Homeowners Association know that they would have a Christmas display.”
The HOA responded negatively, with a representative telling the family: “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.”
He said “we do not wish to … fill our neighborhood with the hundreds of people and possible undesirables.”
Dys argued families “should be encouraged to raise money for an abused or neglected children’s charity by inviting their community to see their Christmas display, not be punished by their HOA for it.”
Spokane’s Spokesman-Review newspaper reported Winmill called members of the jury unreasonable and said the Fair Housing Act protected the association.
The report said, “The battle came to a head when the Morrises in 2017 sued the West Hayden States First Addition Homeowners Association in U.S. District Court in Coeur d’Alene, arguing the homeowners association tried to block the couple from throwing their yearly large-scale Christmas party. The association countersued.”
The judge insisted a “death threat” from a neighbor of the Morrises who did not want the Christmas display was hyperbole.
The judge also claimed the testimony from Morris was “not credible.”