MOSCOW — Three Idaho church members have triumphed over the City of Moscow, Idaho, after suing the city and its officials for their unlawful arrest in September 2020. Thomas More Society attorneys filed suit for the Christ Church trio who were arrested almost two and a half years ago during a “Psalm Sing” outside the Moscow City Hall. In an order dated February 1, 2023, Senior United States District Judge Morrison C. England, Jr., denied the city’s Motion for Summary Judgement and sent the case for settlement. The City of Moscow had suggested that the case be decided in its favor, but the federal judge disagreed.
Thomas More Society Special Counsel Erick Kaardal explained that Gabriel Rench, and Sean and Rachel Bohnet were arrested under a COVID-19 mask mandate issued by Moscow Mayor Bill Lambert. The three were not wearing masks, and because there were more than 200 protestors in attendance, were unable to socially distance. However, the ordinance that they were arrested and prosecuted under had an exception for First Amendment activities.
“Mr. Rench and the Bohnets were arrested even though law enforcement officers were aware of the First Amendment protections under the mayor’s emergency order,” stated Kaardal. “The city violated its own ordinance when law enforcement wrongly arrested Gabriel Rench and Sean and Rachel Bohnet. Those arresting officers demonstrated reckless indifference to these citizens’ First Amendment rights. It appears that the city’s law enforcement department was ‘weaponized’ to go after critics of the city government.”
Moscow officials claimed that the ordinance under which Rench and the others were arrested was ambiguous.
In response, Judge England wrote: “That is simply incorrect. The City’s Code could not be more clear: Under a plain reading of the Order in conjunction with the Ordinance, all expressive activity was excluded from the mask or distance mandate because such [as in this case] conduct was not explicitly addressed in the Order itself. In other words, during the relevant time period, those participating in expressive or associative conduct were not required to mask or distance. Plaintiffs should never have been arrested in the first place, and the Constitutionality of what the City thought its Code said is irrelevant.”
Apparently, the Moscow prosecuting attorney was of the same mind, having moved to dismiss the arrest charges against Rench and the Bohnets. He told the court, several months after the arrests, that, while city codes allow the mayor to issue public health emergency orders, exemptions, unless specifically prohibited, include “any and all expressive and associative activity protected by the U.S. and Idaho constitutions, including speech, press, assembly, and/or religious activity.”
Read the Memorandum and Order issued February 1, 2023, in Gabriel Rench, Sean Bohnet and Rachel Bohnet v. The City of Moscow, Idaho, et al., by Senior United States District Judge Morrison C. England, Jr. of the United States District Court for the District of Idaho here [https://thomasmoresociety.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/02/40-Memo-and-Order-2-1-23.pdf].