Inside Frosty War Over One Resident’s Lurid Christmas Pageant from an Idaho Homeowners Association

It’s starting to look a lot like Christmas, but hey, not in this neighborhood, mate.

It’s holiday season again, and with it come the annual traditions: tied brown paper packets, chestnuts roasted over an open fire, partridges in pear trees and, of course, bitter clashes over festive decorations between the associations of owners and residents. of their subdivisions.

Last month, a federal jury ordered a northern Idaho homeowners association to pay some $75,000 in damages for trying to stop them from hosting a week-long Christmas party on their property. with 200,000 fairy lights, thousands of guests, a live camel and actors dressed as Roman centurions, the Grinch and various other Christmas-adjacent characters, according to the Pacific Northwest Interior. The jury ruled that – despite concerns expressed by the West Hayden Estates Homeowners Association over traffic, light and sound – such a ban violated the Fair Housing Act by discriminating against Jeremy Morris’ Christianity.

For most of its practitioners, Christianity does not require throwing a splashy birthday party for Jesus. But Morris is not like most Christians. The hallways of his mouth are adorned with Christmas-themed braces, and during the holiday season, he swaps his dog’s name from Ronald Reagan to Clarence (à la It’s a wonderful life). He is a close friend of Brent Regan, described by BuzzFeed as “the hard-right sugar daddy and godfather of northern Idaho politics,” who encouraged him to press ahead with his lawsuit and, despite a from behind, he has already tried to ride a horse. across the state of Louisiana to encourage people to vote. And the Interior reports he believes the Almighty has called him to put on whiz-bang Christmas shows as his Christian ministry.

The decision in favor of Morris is highly unusual, according to Andrea Boyack, a professor at Washburn University Law School, whose research focuses on homeowner associations. “I would be very curious if it stays on appeal,” she said. Homeowners associations and condominiums have what is known as an “easement regime”, which gives them the broad power of private community governance. Since these associations generally do not coincide with the actual local government (meaning you can live in the city without living in the homeowners association), they are not subject to the Bill of Rights and therefore may infringe on fundamental freedoms like speech and assembly. The government can’t force you to paint your house a certain color, but a homeowner’s association can. If you don’t like it, according to the prevailing doctrine, then live somewhere else.

Yet these associations must abide by laws like the Fair Housing Act, which prevents discrimination based on categories such as race, religion, gender and disability. But when it comes to religious decorations, what qualifies as discrimination? To illustrate, housing law experts cite a case from the mid-2000s, involving a Chicago condominium. The relevant bias in this case is not Christianity, although the Fair Housing Act does not distinguish between majority and minority groups.

The 24-story Shoreline Towers sit across from the vast mouth of Lake Michigan on Chicago’s Far North Side. Like most condos (and homeowners associations), around 2004, Shoreline had a few rules about exterior appearance, including no placing signs or “objects of any kind” on doors or in hallways. Shoreline Towers was also home to a significant minority of Orthodox Jewish residents — between 10 and 20 percent, according to the Chicago Jewish Star. On their doors, many of these Jewish residents kept a mezuzah, a small scroll on which were inscribed prayers from the Torah. “For Jewish families of a certain level of observance,” Rigel Oliveri, a professor at the University of Missouri Law School who specializes in fair housing law, “the mezuzah is required.”

Following a remodel, Shoreline began enforcing the ban on door objects on mezuzahs that previously hung undisturbed. Informal complaints immediately arose, and when a family’s mezuzah was again taken down as they sat shiva for their patriarch, they filed a lawsuit. According to Oliveri, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ultimately ruled that, if that was all that was going on – strict enforcement of a legitimate universal rule – Shoreline would have been within their easement regime’s right to prohibit items from condo doors, including mezuzahs. “It’s part of the rules you agree to if you move into such a building,” she said. “So even if [the Jewish residents’] faith compelled them to hang a mezuzah, the condo association would not be required to make an exception for them.”

However, the court found evidence of “anti-Semitic animosity” at play – that Shoreline intentionally discriminated against its Jewish residents by selectively applying the hallway rule for the mezuzah and not other items. Ruled shore; the mezuzah lived to adorn another day.

So how did Morris earn $75,000 under the Fair Housing Act? Surely the West Hayden Estates Homeowners Association was blocking all residents from displaying 200,000 lights, cattle and vintage cotton candy machines on their lawns, not just Christians. Troubled by Morris’ stubbornness, the association completely fumbled the statement she sent warning of her Christmas extravagance. Along with concerns about traffic, sound and light – which would have been reason enough to ban the event, say Boyack and Oliveri – the letter also confessed: “I am somewhat hesitant to bring up the fact that some of our residents are not Christians or of any other denomination, and I don’t even want to think about the problems that might cause.”

The sentence reads like an awkward gesture of inclusivity, not bigotry. But according to Boyack, the association’s invocation of Christianity gave the courts enough evidence, under the Shoreline precedent, to take up the case. Otherwise, he probably would have been thrown away immediately. Still, the letter’s reference to Christianity “doesn’t make it a slam dunk case,” she says. Olivieri called the jury’s decision “an emotional decision rather than a legal one.” The homeowners association is now asking the judge to disregard the jury’s findings and rule against Morris, but since the legal bar for such an overturn is very high, Oliveri and Boyack call it unlikely. Perhaps as unlikely as the jury’s original decision.

Meanwhile, over the past year, a Phoenix homeowners association successfully banned outdoor holiday decorations — Christmas or otherwise, an association in Alabama fined a man over $200. for their Christmas wreaths, and one in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, forced a family to remove a large sign that read “JESUS” in blood-red letters from their front yard. Despite Morris, the Grinchiness of many owners’ associations lives on. It’s starting to look a lot like Christmas, but hey, not in this neighborhood, mate.

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