When Gabriel Rench recounts being arrested in front of city hall in Moscow, Idaho, while singing hymns with his church last September, one detail especially continues to irk him.
“They literally took my hymn book away from me and proceeded to handcuff me,” Rench, 41, said of the officers, who then led him away to the county jail, where he remained for several hours.
Moscow, a town of about 25,000 people approximately 80 miles south of Spokane, Washington, made national news last fall when local police arrested three people and cited five others for attending a “peaceful protest” against the mayor’s repeatedly extended public health order. Organized by Christ Church, an evangelical congregation in the area, the protest consisted of about 20 minutes of psalm singing in front of city hall, where city officials had arranged small yellow dots six feet apart as guidance for the participants.
Rench, a deacon at Christ Church, was among those arrested and charged that day with violating the city’s health order, which explicitly provided exemptions for activities protected under “general laws or the constitution of the state of Idaho.”
The city police, according to Rench, approached his mother during the service and asked if she was with him. A mother standing with her son was presumably acceptable, but when Rench placed his arm around his friend and told the officers that he was also with him, they asked for his identification. Rench refused to provide it, urging them instead to join him in exercising his First Amendment rights.
Rench was consequently handcuffed and jailed.
After four months, during which Rench was represented by legal counsel for the Thomas More Society, the city motioned to dismiss the case against him and the county magistrate judge tossed it without comment on Jan. 9. In a press release issued the day before, the city conceded that the actions of those arrested at the psalm sing “could be argued to be included as such expressive and associative activities” that are protected constitutionally.
“The city of Moscow, Idaho, appears to have been so anxious to make an example of Christ Church’s opposition to their desired COVID restrictions that they failed to follow the mandatory exemptions articulated in their own laws,” Thomas More Society special counsel Michael Jacques said in a statement provided to The Daily Wire.
Despite being vindicated, Rench said he remains “frustrated.”
“[T]he city council at no point has communicated or apologized,” Rench said. “The mayor hasn’t called me; the chief of police hasn’t called me. The judge agreed that I was wrongfully arrested and I was in conformity even with their own resolution and I got arrested.” Neither the mayor nor the police chief of Moscow responded to The Daily Wire’s request for comment.
Rench also points out that he was running for county commissioner at the time, and he wonders if his arrest might have played a role in costing him the race. Moscow, which is home to the University of Idaho, is a liberal enclave in an otherwise conservative county in a mostly conservative state. After his arrest, Rench explained, he became somewhat of a pariah in the community.
“I remember the day, Friday, after I got arrested, and Saturday, I was driving around, running around town, doing errands for my wife and I was getting flipped off,” Rench remembered. “I was going to the store and people would walk by me and cuss at me. I’ve been seriously ostracized by a good portion of our community, been lied about significantly. I guess part of it’s just status quo for the liberals in my community in a lot of ways, but I just became a target for them.”
Even since the court absolved him, Rench has not found forgiveness from many of his neighbors. “Even after I won and got my case dismissed, a lot of liberals in the community were mad at the city for dismissing the case. They were mad at the judge for dismissing my case. So I was right, and yet I was still wrong to the liberals in our community.”
Rench maintains that he and his family have thick skins, but he worries how indicative his treatment may be of the growing chasm between Americans who disagree. “We’re moving into this new era where you can’t have a reasonable conversation with liberals, and apparently you can’t even exercise your First Amendment rights without ticking them off,” he lamented.
Also of special concern to Rench is what he sees as the erosion of constitutional freedoms amid what he calls “a leadership failure of the baby boomer generation.”
Many Christians refused to defend Rench during his ordeal, he said, and some even rebuked him. “We’re largely full of cowards in our political sphere and I would also say in our churches. My pastors were behind me, my pastor spoke out, but I had a lot of churches who were against me in all this. And so the reason why we have lack of courage in political leaders is because we have lack of courage in the pulpits.”
Ben Zornes, who is one of Rench’s pastors at Christ Church, echoed his concerns about the growing threat to liberty in the United States.
“While we are grateful that the city is dropping these charges, we remain concerned with how much disregard was shown for our constitutional rights,” Zornes told The Daily Wire. “The government is established to protect the rights which God endowed us with, not to determine which rights we can or can’t have and exercise. We are also concerned that the city views the original emergency order’s provision for the continued exercise of First Amendment rights as a ‘loophole.’ Our prayer is that the mayor and city council see the error of this line of thinking, and work to preserve our liberty in these crazy times we face, rather than continue to infringe upon our God-given rights.”
Douglas Wilson, the senior pastor of Rench’s church, is a prolific author who also weighed in on the case last week on his personal blog.
“It turns out that what we were doing was entirely legal, and what the city of Moscow did was entirely illegal, and so the city, slathered with much embarrassment, has dropped the charges,” wrote Wilson. “Many of the Christians who accused us of being scofflaws, of egregiously violating Romans 13, and thereby bringing the gospel into disrepute, have since then inundated us with emails, calls, and letters that apologized for having misread the situation. They did not realize that the city was the one violating the law.”
“Actually, just kidding,” Wilson added. “We have not been so inundated.”