Amid the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Christians Gabriel Rench, Sean Bohnet, and Rachel Bohnet found themselves in hot water as a result of worshipping outdoors while not wearing masks or social distancing. The three were arrested at the spot of the worship service on September 2020 for violating Moscow, Idaho’s COVID-19 response policy. The group sued the city in a U.S. district court in March 2021, and after an arduous two-and-a-half years in litigation, Rench and the Bohnets prevailed. The city settled with the group on July 14 for $300,000 due to the wrongful arrest of the three in September 2020.
Section 1-11-07 of the Moscow City Code (“the Ordinance”) exempts any expressive and associative activity that is protected by the United States and Idaho Constitutions, including speech, press, assembly, and/or religious activity, from public health emergency orders promulgated by the city. In July 2020, in order to stem a rise in COVID-19 cases, Moscow’s mayor issued Amended Public Health Emergency Order 20-03, requiring all individuals in Moscow to wear a face covering when in public spaces where 6-foot social distancing is not possible. The order also mandated that when possible, individuals should maintain 6-foot social distancing when in public spaces.
Rench and the Bohnets were arrested while participating in Christ Church’s outdoor Psalm sing, which doubled as a religious protest outside Moscow’s City Hall to object to the mask mandate in the mayor’s emergency order. Christ Church Pastor Doug Wilson had requested all attendees forgo wearing masks. Rench and the Bohnets, when arrested, were not wearing masks, nor were the two socially distant.
Law enforcement authorities had been briefed on the planned Psalm singing leading up to the event. When presenting arguments for probable cause and the arrest warrants, authorities gave the local magistrate judge granting arrest warrants affidavits that only referenced the emergency order but omitted the overarching Ordinance. As a result, the magistrate determined probable cause to arrest Rench and the Bohnets for violating the order mandating masks and social distancing, despite the fact that they were engaging in religious activity exempted by the Ordinance from general emergency health orders.
In response to their arrest, the plaintiffs filed suit in the U.S. District Court against the city of Moscow, seeking a jury trial to evaluate the merits of their arguments. Their main argument against the city was that the emergency order violated First Amendment protection for free speech and expressive association. Additionally, the plaintiffs argued that the city violated the Fourth Amendment by forcing them to identify themselves at the protest when there was no legitimate probable cause for them to commit a crime.
In the District Court ruling by Judge Morrison England, the plaintiffs were vindicated as the city’s motion for summary judgment (for the Court to issue a judgment for the city and against the plaintiffs without a full trial) was denied. The Judge reminded the parties that for summary judgment to be granted, the city must show that there is no constitutional violation in any event. The crux of the city’s argument rests on the premise that the overarching Ordinance and the emergency order were ambiguous as to whether they addressed the Plaintiffs’ conduct. Judge England ruled that the city’s critical presupposition was faulty, considering the text of the Ordinance clearly excludes from emergency health orders expressive activity, which includes religious activity. Thus, he held that the plaintiffs should never have been arrested as their refusal to wear masks and socially distance falls under Section 1-11-07’s exception to any emergency health orders issued by the city’s government.
The judge also criticized the city authorities for not referencing the Ordinance when petitioning the magistrate judge for the probable cause finding. By extension, he contended that the magistrate’s probable cause was faulty as the information was incomplete.
However, the ruling also pushed back on some of the plaintiff’s arguments. Most notably, since the emergency order had expired by the time that the plaintiffs filed suit in the District Court, their appeal for declaratory or injunctive relief was put in peril. Regardless, the ruling still favored the plaintiffs, with the conclusion being a denial of the city’s motion and that the two parties settle out of court.
Five months after Judge England’s ruling, the city and the plaintiffs concluded their dispute. Moscow agreed to pay Rench and the Bohnets a collective $300,000 in exchange for all liability against the involved City officials being dropped. The plaintiffs held fast to their religious convictions, and after a grueling two-and-a-half-year legal battle, they finally have been compensated for their wrongful arrests.