A camel, goats, 200,000 lights, and hundreds of people being Shuttled into your neighborhood to meet Santa Claus? HOA says, “No Thanks” and gets slapped with a religious discrimination lawsuit, and the jury rules against the HOA.
Last week, a jury awarded a North Idaho family $75,000 in compensatory and punitive damages for religious discrimination when after their HOA asked them to stop hosting a five-day Christmas “extravaganza” on their property featuring a camel, goats, and “27 professional costumed-designed Bible characters.” In 2016, Hayden, Idaho homeowner Jeremy Morris claimed to have added ten more miles of lights to the 2,950 square foot house, plus the interior was renovated, a few large rugs and great furniture. Spectators who were shuttled in from a separate parking lot a mile away, could get a photo with Santa Claus, provided candy and hot chocolate, and took donations for charity.
When neighbors balked at the hundreds of people who came to see the spectacle, the HOA members wrote a letter that expressed concern about traffic, lighting, and noise. The HOA letter also said, “And finally, 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…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.”
Morris’ attorneys, looking for a peg upon which to base a lawsuit, argued that this line, which the HOA likely added as an additional attempt to appeal to the Christianity of the Morris family to get them to tone down their distracting decorations, amounted to discrimination against their religious beliefs.
Although some in the media have portrayed the HOA’s response as evidence of a “War on Christmas,” holding the equivalent of the “Macy’s Day Parade” in a residential neighborhood and suing when people complain to gin up a claim of “victimhood” seems like an elaborate publicity stunt. It is unfortunate that a jury rewarded this behavior.
As a practical note, when dealing with a potentially litigious party, it is often better to just state what established policies and procedures were violated. List the rule and the corresponding violation and avoid attempts to “reason” that are beyond those parameters. If you are “somewhat hesitant” to bring up a fact, it is usually better left unsaid.
In this case, where the Morris’ expensive and elaborate display was so far beyond neighborhood norms, the HOA would have been further ahead to retain counsel at the outset to review documents and assist with the response thus avoiding much more costly litigation.
It is not known whether the HOA intends to appeal the decision now that the Morris family has decided to move to another area where they will have more room for their Christmas programming.
Below: A flyer distributed to the community advertising the event. Above: Visitors to the home board a shuttle bus.