When Jeremy Morris smiles — or otherwise bares his teeth — you can see his braces: red on top, green on bottom, his pearly whites dressed in Christmas colors.
This is a man who named one of his sons Nicholas — as in St. Nicholas. This is a man who changes the name of his dog from "Ronald Reagan" to "Clarence" during the holidays. This is a man whose very first memory is of crawling on the floor while his dad demonstrated how to fix Christmas bulbs.
People today refer to Morris as Mr. Christmas and Clark Griswold. But that's understating things.
Sure, in the Christmas Vacation movie, Clark Griswold decked out his house in 25,000 lights. But Morris used 200,000!
Besides, Griswold didn't bring in a real camel named Dolly, or throw a five-day Christmas extravaganza with an antique cotton-candy machine, a professional mandolin player and volunteers dressed as Santa Claus, Rudolph, Frosty, Christmas elves, the Grinch and Clifford the Christmas Dog.
And Griswold didn't end up in a nearly four-year-long legal nightmare with his neighbors.
This is what happens when a Christmas movie plot unfolds in North Idaho: It's a story that involves armed "patriots," secret recordings, Fox News, claims of anti-Christian bigotry, reports of vandalism, a lawsuit, a countersuit, depositions and even — a la Miracle on 34th Street — Santa Claus on the witness stand.
And, finally, a verdict: An Idaho jury unanimously concluded last month that Morris's homeowners association had discriminated against his Christian religion.
To Morris, a 37-year-old attorney, this isn't just a neighborly dispute. It's spiritual warfare, good versus evil, the Christmas lights versus the darkness.
But Chuck Norlin, the current president of the West Hayden Estates Homeowners Association, is a Christian too, and he takes away a different lesson.
"The Bible says to love your neighbor as yourself," Norlin says. "Jeremy Morris sued his neighborhood for $250,000 and then called us devil worshipers and anti-Christians. ... How would you judge that as his show being effective at showing Christianity?"
THE FIRST NOEL
To Morris, that first Hayden Christmas Light Show, in his old Grouse Meadows neighborhood, was something like a Christmas miracle.
It was 2014, and he decided to go all out for Christmas. He'd been collecting lights for five years, preparing for the kind of over-the-top display that his family created for competitions when he was a kid in California.
He'd planned to invite his neighbors over to see his lights, have some cotton candy and hot chocolate and raise money for both the Children's Village (a Coeur d'Alene crisis shelter for kids) and the Emmett Paul Snyders Foundation (a local organization to help families with cancer).
But within a few days, his Facebook page had 917 families planning to attend. So Morris scrambled. He called up a woman who owned a camel, recruited kids at Lakeland High School to sing Christmas songs and marshalled an army of volunteers from his church, Candlelight Christian Fellowship, to help out.
The festival lasted eight crazy nights. It raised thousands of dollars for kids with cancer.
"People came up to me, hugging me, saying, 'Please do this again,'" Morris says.
That's not to say that every neighbor loved it. The Spokesman-Review reported that Morris didn't get the required city permits and that one of his neighbors complained to the city of Hayden about his bright lights. Today, a few neighbors tell the Inlander about their frustrations over the lights, noise and congestion, and one claims attendees drove over grassy swales and blocked his driveway.
But to Morris, that first Christmas Light Show wasn't just a success. It was a sign. God was telling him that putting on these kinds of Christmas shows was to be his ministry. And 2015, he decided, would be even bigger and better.
Just two days after Christmas, Morris and his wife go house hunting. He tells his real estate agent to find a place outside the city of Hayden, where he wouldn't have to worry about getting permits for Christmas shows.
The very first day, Morris finds the house he wants, in a place called the West Hayden Estates.
That's when things get really ugly, really fast.
GOLD, FRANKINCENSE AND MURDER THREATS
It's not exactly unusual for homeowners associations to nitpick about Christmas decorations. In the last three years alone, news stories have cropped up about HOAs clashing with homeowners over their decorations in Alabama, Nevada, Indiana, Florida, California, Arizona, Washington state, Pennsylvania and Missouri.
In that sense, the letter Jeremy Morris gets from the West Hayden Estates Homeowners Association in January of 2015 isn't a surprise. It says the board doesn't want to discourage him from becoming part of their "great neighborhood," but also warns him about the potential for "expensive litigation" if he holds his Christmas Light Show, citing neighborhood covenants regarding lighting, sound, traffic and property uses.
It also frets that the show could fill the neighborhood with "hundreds of people and possible undesirables."
(An earlier draft of the letter that Morris obtained as part of legal discovery is even meaner, warning about the "riff-raff" Morris "seemed to attract over by WalMart" and concluding with the phrase, "we don't allow 'those kind' in our neighborhood.")
But it wasn't the sneering at the poor that horrified Morris. It was another line: "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."
Chuck Norlin — who wasn't a board member back then — interprets that line as trying to communicate inclusivity, showing that the HOA wanted to be considerate of the entire neighborhood. He says the full board hadn't officially approved the letter before one of the board members sent it out.
But to Morris and his wife? The takeaway was obvious: The HOA hated Christians.
Morris grew up immersed in the religious right. He attended the church of evangelical Christian icon John MacArthur — author of the MacArthur Study Bible. He and his wife were married by Tony Perkins, president of the anti-gay-rights Family Research Council. The guy who told him to go to law school at Liberty University, the largest evangelical school in the country? Jerry Falwell.
But the Morrises aren't the only ones who thought the HOA was discriminating. His real estate agent — who attends Morris's Bible study — draws the same conclusion. So does his pastor at Candlelight and the West Hayden Estates couple who are about to sell him their home.
So at a tense meeting at a Caffe Capri in Hayden, Morris offers the board an ultimatum: De-annex his house from the HOA — freeing him from its oversight — and he would agree to not pursue legal action. Yes, the neighborhood covenants require three-fourths of his neighbors to agree to boot him from the HOA, but Morris wants the board to convince them.
Instead, in February 2015, the HOA board sends out a message to the other 48 homes of West Hayden Estates, warning them Morris was threatening "legal action" if they did not approve his holiday light show. Morris fires off own rebuttal letter to the neighborhood, accusing the board of lying in its letter and arguing it had violated the Fair Housing Act by discriminating against him.
All this before he even gets his house keys. His wife, Kristy, doesn't want to move in at all.
"Would neighbors damage our property because we are obviously Christians?" she writes in a court document. "I want to raise my family in a peaceful and safe area, not where my family feels vulnerable or attacked."
Morris's pastor, Paul Van Noy, also discourages him from moving in, concerned about the impact on Morris's family. But Morris won't budge. To him, it's a matter of principle. So in March, he and his wife move into a neighborhood that has already begun to resent them.
For months it's quiet. But finally, in October — after he finishes putting up his Christmas lights — he gets a letter from the HOA's attorney claiming his Christmas show would be "be offensive to the senses," congest traffic and violate the neighborhood's covenants. The letter threatens litigation and gives him 10 days to respond.
Morris responds with a single word: "Nuts."
And then he calls in the artillery. He sends an email to national media outlets. Fox News, which had been beating the "War on Christmas" drum for a decade, laps it up.
"It seems to me the homeowners association has a legitimate concern about crowds and traffic and livestock," right-wing Fox pundit Todd Starnes opines. "But I suspect this has more to do with Christianity than camels."
Soon, it's not just Fox. It's Salon, the Associated Press and Christianity Today. Local TV networks send out news vans. "UFP News," a right-wing fake news site, falsely claims that Morris had been told to remove his Christmas display to "avoid upsetting Muslims."
All the media coverage draws the attention of a group aligned with the militia movement: Two months before members of the heavily armed Three Percenters of Idaho drove to Burns, Oregon — to offer their help to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupiers — they show up on Morris's doorstep, offering their armed protection if he needs it.
A West Hayden Estates neighbor couple, Larry and Kathy Bird, post angry comments on the Three Percenters of Idaho Facebook page.
"Even before Mr. News Grabber moved in here, he was threatening lawsuits because of his display coming under attack. Great way to introduce yourself into a new neighborhood, right?" the Birds write. "This guy claims to be a Christian conservative. The crap he's pulling is what a liberal Democrat would pull."
The fight isn't just on Facebook. Russell Deming, one of Morris's friends, says he witnesses Larry Bird marching down Ferndale Drive to confront Morris over the Three Percenters.
Deming says he remembers Bird telling Morris about how he's "'got plenty of guns, too'" and that "'if he needed to, he'd come and take care of Jeremy himself.'"
Morris records the tail end of the argument on video, as his wife confronts Bird over his apparent threat to "take care of him," and Bird appears to backtrack.
"I didn't threaten you nothin'," Bird says on the video. "I may come over and offer him a hug. That's how I'll take care of him. And you just keep taping and filming. Typical shit."
Deming isn't worried. Bird is an old man.
"I never considered it to be a legitimate death threat," Deming tells the Inlander. (Bird declined to be interviewed by the Inlander.)
But Morris takes it seriously.
"Larry Bird," he later tells a federal judge, "threatened to murder me in front of my family, threatened in explicit detail about things that could be done."
PEACE ON EARTH
It's the month before Christmas in 2015, and the skies themselves are angry: Around 80 West Hayden neighbors are packed into a garage for a homeowners meeting, buffeted by one of the most devastating windstorms to ever hit the Inland Northwest.
"The wind is pounding, everything is shaking," Morris recalls. "The lights are flickering, they're going out."
An elderly neighbor starts hitting the cement floor in the garage with his cane.
"Mr. Morris, you're an ass," he proclaims, as it was later recounted in court documents. "And if you don't like it here, get the hell out."
It's not just the old man with the cane, Morris says: One by one, he recounts, dozens of other neighbors speak out against Morris and his show. He believes the HOA board poisoned his neighborhood against him.
In an affidavit, one of Morris's few allies in the neighborhood, Angelene Cox, agrees with that assessment: She calls the HOA board "vigilantes," testifying that some neighbors openly referred to Morris as "the enemy."
Some Christians might have seen all the anger as a sign that God actually didn't want Morris to hold this event. Instead, after intense prayer, he drew the opposite conclusion: That his faith was being tested and he should hold strong.
When he was a kid, he says, he heard the Bible story of the Jews who braved the flames of a Babylonian furnace rather than bow down before an idol — and asked himself if he would have that same sort of courage.
"I wanted to have the faith of a martyr," he says.
He doesn't leave. The HOA withdraws its lawsuit threat. The 2015 Hayden Christmas Light Show proceeds.
While Morris had immediately declined the Three Percenters of Idaho offer, he does decide to pay former law enforcement officers, armed and undercover, to patrol his show.
"There were more guns in front of this street than you would ever believe," he later tells a neighbor.
Ultimately, the guards aren't needed. For two hours for five nights, Morris's house glows a brilliant white. "Look at all the people you made happy," a visitor tells Morris, as he pans his camera to show the camel and the donkey and the assembled crowd.
For Morris, it's bittersweet. His wife isn't there: With all the threats and media attention, she chose to stay at her mom's house in Virginia rather than attend the Christmas Light Show.
In February 2016, the board sends out a Happy New Year's letter passing along complaints about Morris's show, including littering, a crushed culvert pipe, impeded traffic and "children urinating on bushes and in the snow."
Morris is furious — again threatening a lawsuit if his house isn't de-annexed. Even if he still has to pay the equivalent of HOA dues, he says, he just wants to be free.
He ups the ante for his 2016 show. Somebody from San Francisco donates 10 miles of Christmas lights. He brings in a crane to put them up and installs a separate 400-amp electrical panel to keep them powered. The more lights, he reasons, the more visitors, the more powerful his ministry.
Costume designers turn donated upholstery into 23 new outfits. Volunteers plan to dress up as Roman centurions to collect "taxes" — voluntary donations — for the two charities.
But while Morris hasn't given up the fight, neither have some of his neighbors. When the 2016 show launches, next-door neighbor Kimberly Deschryver stands in her lawn and holds a decibel meter measuring the Christmas Light Show's "Rockin' around the Christmas Tree" at around 75 decibels — about as loud as a vacuum cleaner. She videotapes a line of cars backed up behind buses dropping off passengers.
"If there's an emergency, this is what we're concerned about," Deschryver narrates.
Meanwhile, Blaine Svetich, owner of Coeur d'Alene Transportation, is driving a bus for the event when he spots somebody pushing a snowblower toward his bus and somebody else videotaping. He thinks they're trying to stage a fake accident or a near-miss for the camera.
"Somebody is going to get hurt," Svetich remembers worrying. "I don't know what game they're playing here, but these are big buses."
Each year, Morris says, he heard from visitors who said they'd been harassed or yelled at or cussed out by his neighbors for parking on the street.
To Morris, it all suggested a campaign of harassment.
So with the statute of limitations about to expire in January of 2017, Morris makes good on his years of litigation threats: He sues the HOA under the Fair Housing Act, demanding $250,000 in punitive damages, on top of damages for "shock, humiliation, embarrassment, inconvenience, and economic loss" his family incurred.
When the news of his lawsuit breaks, Morris gets a Facebook message from a stranger warning him, "I would watch my back and your family's back. Be a bummer if something happened."
The resulting sheriff's report says Morris was "so fearful he was loading his assault rifle and was going to keep it near him at all times."
In March of 2017, he calls law enforcement again, accusing an unknown neighbor of ripping Christmas lights off one of his trees.
When Christmas of 2017 rolls around, in the midst of his lawsuit, his house remains dark. It's not that he's given up, he says. He's just worried that because of a stunt gone wrong or intentional violence, somebody could get hurt. He says he keeps his kids inside because of the threats.
But that fear goes both ways.
"There are people who clearly wonder if, at some point, Jeremy Morris is going to come completely unhinged and come out and damage somebody," Norlin says.
...AND GOODWILL TOWARD MEN
There was a moment, just before the 2015 Hayden Light Show in his new neighborhood, when Morris and his wife considered giving up. He was on the edge of a nervous breakdown, he recalls. His security experts had recommended he cancel his program.
"He was about ready to throw in the towel," recalls Morris's friend Brent Regan, the mustachioed conservative who BuzzFeed calls the "godfather of North Idaho politics."
But Regan explained to Morris that he needed to do this as a man. He says if he didn't, he'd question himself for the rest of his life.
"I told him that bullies are basically just cowards," Regan says. "If you are approached by a bully, then you've got to turn around and go toe-to-toe with them."
For Morris, that metaphor hit particularly hard. As an adolescent, whenever bullies challenged Morris to fight them, he would agree to meet them after school. He'd get the snot beat out of him — he was hospitalized on three different occasions, he says — but he never wanted to look weak.
And then he finally won one: He pulled a bully's sweater over his head, kicked him in the shins with his steel-toed boots, and then kicked him a few more times when he dropped to the ground. The bullying stopped a little after that, he says.
That's the Jeremy Morris way: Stand up to bullies. Never turn down a fight. Kick them with steel-toed boots.
After all, his Christmas show battle isn't the only fight Morris has charged into the last few years. He sued over the security deposit at the home where he held his first Christmas show in 2014. He joined a lawsuit arguing the state's standardized test violated the 10th Amendment. He was involved with a 2013 stunt that tried to trick Coeur d'Alene council candidates by sending them deceptive emails, pretending to be progressives asking about prayer at public meetings. Last year, a Coeur d'Alene school board member made some comments in favor of removing Confederate symbols, and pretty soon Morris was standing out front of a school board meeting with a fake book-burning bonfire prop and a bullhorn, waving an American flag and proclaiming that "Bolsheviks have taken over the school board."
No, Morris's Christianity isn't why so many of his neighbors dislike him, argues Norlin, the HOA president. It's all the hostility, the intimidation, the hair-trigger threats to drop "atomic blast" lawsuits and "bring hell" to the neighborhood.
"He didn't come in there with an eagle feather," Norlin says. "He came in there with a bulldozer."
To some of his neighbors, it's Morris who's the bully. During depositions, Morris, then representing himself, interrogates former HOA President Jennifer Scott, under oath, over whether he was ever a bully to her.
And Scott tells Morris that, yes, he was. Sometimes he could be nice to her, she says, but at times he was furious, threatening to take the HOA for everything it had.
"You could go on for a long time on the phone... upset and yelling," Scott says. "And I felt very intimidated and scared. I mean, many times I cried on the phone with you."
When I tell Morris the deposition with Scott will be referenced in this article, he has a warning: "You paint me in a false light, and you will face a lawsuit."
He points out all the times that he was nice to Scott. He says that her "fake bullying lie" is contradicted by text messages and his secret recordings.
Morris has been covertly recording his conversations with his neighbors for years. He's proud of it. It's legal in Idaho. He uses these recordings to accuse his neighbors of being liars, of committing perjury, and of agreeing with him that the HOA was being discriminatory.
Morris plays me the greatest-hits compilation of neighborhood recording snippets on iTunes. It closes with Ron Taylor, the HOA president in 2016, agreeing that the HOA covenant restrictions on external lighting don't apply to Christmas lights.
"So why did they come after me?" Morris asks.
"It's because somebody in this association doesn't like Christmas," Taylor says.
"Boom!" Morris says on the recording.
But the full 47-minute recording of Morris's conversation with Taylor, obtained by the Inlander, shows what the West Hayden Estates neighborhood had been dealing with.
In that recording, Morris interrogates Taylor about where his dog pees, gloats about all the media attention ("Guess who wants me on their show?!") and thunders that "I am going to cause this neighborhood so many problems" unless the HOA de-annexes his house.
Taylor calls Morris a "f—-ing bully." But that doesn't stop Morris from threatening to sue every homeowner who violates even minor neighborhood covenant rules.
"It's going to be, like, every spring when the flowers start coming up, someone else in this neighborhood is getting a lawsuit," Morris says.
Specifically, he says he's coming for Dolly — his 80-year-old neighbor, not the camel — and her little dogs, too. She has three dogs when the neighborhood rules limit her to two.
"This woman, who thinks she can come after me in the way that she has, is in open violation of the rules!" Morris yells on the recording. "So the question is, what dog are we going to take? What dog are we taking from Dolly? ... The little white one is the one I want."
But the irony is that, according to Norlin, all of Morris's lawsuit threats have made the West Hayden neighborhood more afraid of violating all the HOA rules, lest they draw Morris's legal wrath.
"You live your life wondering about, every day ... is my garbage can too far out in the street? Should I take that decoration down?" Norlin says. "People live on pins and needles because of Jeremy Morris."
THE SANTA SUIT
Robert Wilson doesn't dress in his costume during the federal trial held in October, but his big bowl-full-of-jelly belly and long white beard make it clear exactly who the 68-year-old is. Wilson has been playing Santa Claus since he was 22, when his Army captain tossed him a red suit and a fake beard 30 miles from the Korean demilitarized zone.
Wilson tells the jury he didn't notice much traffic or much noise at Morris's event. Back in 1998 when he was living in Illinois, Wilson tells the jury, he himself won a citywide Christmas lighting contest with a display that was much brasher than Morris's in Hayden.
"Jeremy's light was nowhere close to that," he says.
And then Morris's lawyer asks Wilson about the little candy canes he passed out to the kids. The canes had a message attached, an apocryphal story about how the red in the candy cane stood for Jesus's blood, the white for his purity, and the "J" shape for Jesus's name.
It's important, because Morris needs to prove that this was integral to his faith. He needs to prove he was discriminated against because of his religion.
Legally, the language of the Fair Housing Act doesn't consider discrimination against one race or religion more serious than the other.
"You could have a discrimination case with somebody who was Christian or who was white if it could be shown that was the basis of the decision," says Jose Trejo, attorney for the Northwest Justice Project in Spokane.
Morris doesn't just argue that anti-Christian sentiment drove the HOA opposition to the Christmas Light Show, he argues that anyone who claims they were genuinely inconvenienced by the show itself is a "liar."
The HOA claims you can't put up decorations without permission? Well, Morris says, what about all those Halloween decorations? The HOA complains about his camel? Well, what about the ponies at neighborhood birthday parties? The HOA has complaints about noise or lights or disruption? Here's a video of illegal fireworks booming across the subdivision during the Fourth of July.
But the HOA attorneys argue that a five-day party featuring a constant stream of buses shuttling thousands of people on a narrow neighborhood street is different than a Fourth of July show. The neighborhood covenants, they point out, include a broad rule against "nuisances" — anything that could interfere with the "quiet enjoyment" of any homeowners.
The jury doesn't buy it. The jury unanimously concludes that the HOA discriminated against the Morris family, in part because of his religion, both before and after they purchased their home. It agrees that the HOA intimidated, threatened or interfered with Morris's home purchase, and expressed a preference for a nonreligious individual. The jury awards Morris $75,000.
The war isn't quite over: The homeowners association attorneys have asked the judge to rule on whether the Morris's Christmas program violates the neighborhood covenants. They've also asked him to take the extremely rare step of overruling the jury.
But, for now, Morris has won.
"I can now walk away from this knowing that I did not let my God down," Morris says.
THE TRUE MEANING OF CHRISTMAS
There are times when Morris filters his story through the lens of a Christmas special. From memory, he recites the first eight lines of How the Grinch Stole Christmas to talk about how his neighbors' hearts were two sizes too small. He edits a picture of him and his friends into the climax of It's a Wonderful Life.
But Morris also filters his experience through another story: The book of Exodus. He thinks that God may have hardened the hearts of the homeowners association — like he did with Pharaoh's refusal to let the Israelites go amid the plagues of Egypt — for God's greater glory.
"Sometimes God wants to show a great work," he says, "a miracle, a parting of the Red Sea."
And now he's heading for his promised land. He won't be holding another Christmas Light Show in the West Hayden Estates. Instead, he wants to move to a big stretch of private property where he can build "New Bethlehem," an entire Christmas nativity village of shops and actors.
"Through all the strife that my family endured, in the end I know that God's name was lifted up," Morris says. "And now there's a federal court precedent that will protect other Christians."
This past Sunday, Morris appeared on Fox & Friends, where the chyron proclaims "HOMEOWNER WINS WAR ON CHRISTMAS."
Yet even among evangelical Christians, there's disagreement over whether fights over nativity scenes, Christmas trees and holiday lighting displays actually lift up their faith. Morris's childhood pastor — John MacArthur — penned a Washington Times op-ed in 2012 arguing that focusing on the "so-called war on Christmas" was a distraction, that there was "nothing sacred about Christmas decorations."
"Secularists who can't stand the sight of a Christmas tree pose no real threat to the church or her mission," MacArthur wrote.
Meanwhile, Morris's current pastor, Van Noy, says that when Morris's faith was under attack, he had no choice but to take a stand. But you also have Christians like Norlin, who argue that God wants people to be gentle and kind, to seek peace, not go to war with a neighborhood.
The Christmas movie version of this saga, of course, would end with both Morris and the HOA delivering a neat little Christmas lesson. The spirit of Christmas isn't about camels or candy canes. It's about love and generosity. Having a great neighborhood isn't about tidy lawns or trimmed hedges. It's about living in harmony, cherishing even the neighbors who sometimes drive you crazy.
And then they would all stand out on Morris's lawn and shut off the lights, allowing the stars of North Idaho to shine down past the falling snow.
One star would shine brighter than the others.
But Morris? He likes the ending he got. The jury unanimous. The homeowners association punished. His fight vindicated.
"I think that's a beautiful ending," he says. ♦
Daniel Walters, born and raised in Spokane, has been writing for the Inlander since 2008. In that time, he's conducted investigations into the alt-right, online bullying and the internal struggles of the local Democratic and Republican parties. He's also written stories about his struggles with cooking, his evangelical parents' rejection of Donald Trump and about how "O! Holy Night" is the only good Christmas song. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 509-325-0634 ext. 263.