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Trial over Christmas lights starts Monday in North Idaho

COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho - A fight over Christmas lights and the rights of homeowners within a homeowners association will get a turn in court, as a federal trial gets underway Monday afternoon in Coeur d'Alene.

Jeremy and Kristy Morris of Hayden sued the West Hayden Estates First Addition Homeowners Association in federal court, claiming the homeowners association violated their rights under the Fair Housing Act and also violated the Idaho Human Rights Act, alleging discrimination based on religion.

The fight is over what Morris calls his desire to buy a home and host an "annual Christmas program" at a home in Hayden.

The Morris family was renting a home in 2014 and held the First Annual Hayden Christmas program in the driveway. According to the lawsuit, "the program 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 [sic] or cancer."

The Morris' said they expressed their intent to buy a home with the intent of continuing their Christmas program. They found a home in the West Hayden Estates HOA and entered into a contract to buy it in January 2015. Morris says he contacted the president of the HOA to let her know that he would be hosting an annual Christmas program there for five days. Morris says there was nothing in the HOA rules that would prohibit this, "but that he wanted to be cordial and encourage members of the HOA to take part in the festivities if they so desired."

He says he learned from the HOA a couple of weeks later, saying the HOA did not want the Morris's to host the event.

Morris said the HOA sent a letter to him saying "that a Christmas show is offensive to non-Christians in the neighborhood." Morris said the HOA contacted the sellers of the home prior to closing and said the HOA "did not want the Morris' beliefs pressed on others in the neighborhood." 

The disagreement escalated throughout 2015. In late October of that year, Morris contacted Fox News about the issue and it received national attention.

That December, the Morris's held the Christmas program, but say the HOA members tried to interfere, making death threats and contacting sheriff's deputies about illegally parked vehicles. The program was held in December 2016 as well.

The lawsuit claims "the HOA fostered a hostile atmosphere resulting in such episodes including, but not limited to: one neighbor threatening to have the Morris' murdered, another neighbor pounding a cane into the pavement many times at an annual members meeting shouting demands for the Morris's to 'get the hell out' and threatening online Facebook posts including one as recently as December 14, 2016 which suggested the Morris' should be prepared to stock up on weapons at the local gun show."

The claim alleges the HOA board did nothing to de-escalate the hostile atmosphere.

The HOA has filed a counter suit against the Morris family. The counter suit claims the allegations in the Morris' suit fail to tell the whole story. The counter suit says the HOA acted in good faith throughout.

The HOA says people living in that area agree to abide by certain covenants, conditions and restrictions. The HOA says the Morris' purchased their home subject to those terms. 

According to the HOA, the Morris' Christmas program was attended by 6,000-10,000 people and earned more than $6,000.

The HOA says the Morris family program includes more than 20,000 Christmas lights, caroling by candlelight, appearances by Christmas characters, a live nativity scene with a live camel, appearances by a children's choir, patio heaters, portable restrooms and raffles. 

According to the HOA, homeowners must obtain prior permission to decorate the exterior of any buildings, screens, doors or awnings that can be visible from a neighboring lot. The HOA says the Morris family failed to obtain written consent. 

It also says the Christmas program interferes with other homeowners' "quiet enjoyment" of the subdivision, through noise, lighting and visual interference and a significant increase in traffic.

The HOA also says business use vehicles aren't permitted and no homes in the subdivision "shall be used for any purpose other than single-family residential purposes." The counter suit says the Christmas program is a commercial venture and that commercial buses deliver visitors to the property for the event.

In the lawsuit, the Morris's want their property de-annexed from the HOA. They also want the HOA to be required to attend training in Fair Housing and anti-discrimination. The Morris want to be paid compensatory damages that will "compensate Mr. and Mrs. Morris fully for their shock, humiliation, embarrassment, inconvenience and economic loss." They also want $250,000 in punitive damages.

The HOA would like the claims to be denied, that the Christmas program be declared a violation, that all decorations be removed and permanently stored and that the HOA can regain costs associated with the legal battle so far.

A jury trial is set to get underway Monday afternoon at the federal courthouse in Coeur d'Alene.


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