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Three Idaho churchgoers who were arrested last fall for not wearing masks at an outdoor service are suing city authorities for violating their constitutional rights.
The Thomas More Society filed a lawsuit this week on behalf of Gabriel Rench, Sean Bohnet, and Rachel Bohnet against the City of Moscow, Idaho, as well as the city’s supervisor, police chief, prosecuting attorneys, and the arresting police officers.
Rench and the Bohnets made national news last September when approximately 300 people assembled outdoors to sing psalms in front of city hall in Moscow, a town of approximately 25,000 people about 80 miles south of Spokane, Washington.
Organized by Christ Church, a prominent evangelical congregation in the town, the event consisted of about 20 minutes of singing and was intended in part to protest Moscow Mayor Bill Lambert’s repeatedly extended mask mandate. Upon learning of the planned event, city officials had arranged small yellow dots six feet apart in the parking lot as guidance for the participants.
Speaking exclusively to The Daily Wire after a county magistrate judge threw out the city’s case against him in January, Rench explained that police approached his mother during the psalm sing and asked if she was with him. A mother standing with her son was presumably acceptable because she was family, but when Rench placed his arm around his friend and told the officers that he was also with him, they asked for his identification.
State law does not require Idaho residents to identify themselves to law enforcement if they are not driving.
Rench refused to provide it, urging the officers instead to join him in exercising his First Amendment rights, at which point he was cuffed and led away to the county jail along with the Bohnets. The jail had to turn the lights on to incarcerate the group, where they were detained for several hours after being cited with violating the face mask and social distancing order.
Sean Bohnet, who was placed in a small cell with Rench, noted the irony of the fact that for all their hand-wringing over wearing masks outside, law enforcement did not seem too worried about ensuring they were worn in jail.
“We thought a city that would premeditatively break the law in order to detain and jail those lawfully not wearing masks would at least offer one to incarcerated people,” Bohnet said. “However, we were in good company. Staff at the jail occasionally had no issue with letting their faces freely shine too.”
Thomas More Society special counsel Michael Jacques, who is representing the plaintiffs, said in a statement provided to The Daily Wire that Moscow “violated its own ordinance when law enforcement wrongly arrested” his clients.
As the city prosecutor conceded when he motioned to dismiss the city’s case in January, city codes allow the mayor to issue public health emergency orders, but that 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.”
Jacques also laid blame upon the law enforcement officers who arrested them, claiming they “demonstrated reckless indifference to the defendants’ First Amendment rights.”
“These worshippers had participated in a church sing in the past under the same mask ordinance without any issues and were exercising their freedom as Americans to worship as the Constitution allows,” Jacques explained. “However, the city was so eager to make an example of Christ Church’s opposition to its restrictive COVID rules that the officers failed to follow the mandatory exemptions listed in the city ordinance.”
“A motto of government in prosecuting its citizens is that ‘ignorance of the law is no defense,’ and when they recklessly deprive its citizens of their freedoms, ignorance will not be a defense for the government,” Jacques added.
The lawsuit alleges that law enforcement were aware of the First Amendment protections within the mayor’s emergency order when they arrested Rench and the Bohnets, and claims their rights were violated under the First Amendment and Fourth Amendment.
Noting the charges against them were dismissed only after they were publicly humiliated and slapped with legal fees, Jacques said, “The lives of Mr. Rench and the Bohnets were disrupted not only by the inappropriate actions of law enforcement officers, but also by the city’s prosecuting attorney and other officials who did not immediately act to negate their unlawful detainment.”
After the psalm sing incident, the Moscow City Council changed their ordinance regarding public health emergencies to ensure it applies to all persons and activities in Moscow, even political speech. Jacques asserts such a revision renders the ordinance unconstitutional on its face, and he maintained during a Wednesday press conference that the lawsuit is mainly intended to stress to local authorities their constitutional limitations.
Rench said the Moscow City Council is sowing discord in the town with their unwillingness to acknowledge how they were violating basic rights. “Instead, the city council revised its order to target myself and others who would exercise their constitutional rights,” he said. “The council’s actions have fragmented Moscow and increased hostility in the broader community.”
As Rench told The Daily Wire in January, he has become somewhat of a pariah in the overwhelmingly liberal university town, even after being absolved by the court. “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.” He said he has been flipped off and cussed out by some of his fellow Moscow residents.
Nathan Wilson, the son of Christ Church senior pastor Douglas Wilson, has also found himself and his family at odds with the Moscow police and city government, as The Daily Wire recently reported. Describing how his native Moscow has changed since the pandemic, he said, “It’s just kind of sad to discover where we are now and what all this COVID tension and all these mask orders and everything else have turned us into.”