It's the holiday season again, and with it comes the annual traditions: brown-paper packages tied up with string, chestnuts roasting on an open fire, partridges in pear trees—and, of course, bitter clashes over festive decorations between homeowners associations and residents of their subdivisions.
Last month, a federal jury ordered a homeowners association in northern Idaho to pay a couple $75,000 in damages for attempting to prevent them from hosting a week-long Christmas extravaganza on their property featuring 200,000 icicle 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 Inlander. The jury ruled that—despite the West Hayden Estates Homeowners Association's stated concerns about traffic, light, and sound— such a prohibition violated the Fair Housing Act by discriminating against Jeremy Morris' Christianity.
For most of its practitioners, Christianity doesn't require the hosting of a blowout birthday bash for Jesus. But Morris isn't like most Christians. The halls of his mouth are decked with Christmas-colored braces, and during the holiday season, he swaps his dog's name from Ronald Reagan to Clarence (a la It's a Wonderful Life). He's close friends with Brent Regan, described by BuzzFeed as "the sugar daddy of the hard right and the godfather of North Idaho politics," who encouraged him to pursue his lawsuit, and, despite a bad back, he once attempted to ride a horse across the state of Louisiana to encourage people to vote. And, the Inlander reports, he believes that the Almighty called him to put on whiz-bang Christmas shows as his Christian ministry.
The ruling in favor of Morris is highly unusual, according to Andrea Boyack, a professor at Washburn University School of Law whose research is focused on homeowners associations. "I would be very curious if it stands on appeal," she said. Homeowners associations and condominiums have what's called a "servitude regime," which gives them the broad authority of private community governance. Since these associations are not usually coterminous with the actual local government (meaning you could live in the town without living in the homeowners association), they are not subject to the Bill of Rights, and thus are able to impinge upon fundamental freedoms like expression and assembly. The government can't force you to paint your house a certain color, but a homeowners association can. If you don't like it, the prevailing doctrine goes, then live somewhere else.
Still, these associations must abide by laws like the Fair Housing Act, which prevents discrimination on the basis of categories including race, religion, sex, and disability. But when it comes to religious decorations, what qualifies as discrimination? To illustrate, experts in housing law point to a case from the mid-2000s, regarding a Chicago condominium. That case's relevant prejudice is not Christianity—although the Fair Housing Act does not distinguish between majority and minority groups.
The 24-story Shoreline Towers sits across the street from the sweeping maw of Lake Michigan, on Chicago's Far North Side. Like most condos (and homeowners associations), circa 2004 Shoreline had a few rules about outward appearances, including a prohibition on placing signs or "objects of any sort" on doors or in hallways. Shoreline Towers also happened to be home to a substantial 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 inscribed with prayers from the Torah. "For Jewish families of a certain level of observance," Rigel Oliveri, a professor at the University of Missouri School of Law specializing in fair housing law, "the mezuzah is required."
Following a remodeling, Shoreline began enforcing the ban on door objects on mezuzahs that had previously hung undisturbed. Informal complaints arose immediately, and when one family's mezuzah was again taken down while they were sitting shiva for their patriarch, they sued. According to Oliveri, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals eventually ruled that, if this was all that was going on—a hardline enforcement of a legitimate universal rule—Shoreline would have been within the rights of their servitude regime to ban objects from condo doors, including mezuzahs. "That's part of the rules you sign onto 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 wouldn't be required to make an exception for them."
However, the court found evidence of "anti-Semitic animus" at play—that Shoreline intentionally discriminated against its Jewish residents by selectively enforcing the hallway rule for mezuzah and not for other items. Shoreline settled; the mezuzah lived to adorn another day.
So how did Morris win $75,000 under the Fair Housing Act? Surely West Hayden Estates Homeowners Association was preventing all residents from displaying 200,000 lights, livestock, and vintage cotton candy machines on their front lawn, not just the Christians. Flustered by Morris' bullheadedness, the association completely fumbled the statement it sent warning against his Christmas extravaganza. In addition to concerns about traffic, sounds, and light—which would have been sufficient cause to prohibit the event, Boyack and Oliveri say—the letter also confessed, "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."
The sentence reads as a clumsy gesturing at 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, it probably would have been immediately tossed out. Still, the letter's reference to Christianity "does not make it a slam dunk case," she says. Olivieri called the jury's ruling an "emotional, rather than legal decision." 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 overrule is very high, both Oliveri and Boyack call that unlikely. Maybe as unlikely as the jury's initial ruling.
Meanwhile, within 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 his Christmas wreaths, and one in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, forced a family to remove a large sign bearing the text "JESUS" in blood red letters from their front yard. Morris notwithstanding, the Grinchiness of many a homeowners association lives on. It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas—but hey, not in this neighborhood, buddy.