Pandemic Era Redux: City Pays Christians Arrested for Maskless Psalm Singing
Moscow police arrested unresisting Christians as they sang psalms in a parking lot. That sentence might invoke memories of Soviet Russia, but it actually occurred in Moscow, Idaho on September 23, 2020. Police arrested Gabriel Rench and Sean and Rachel Bohnet for violating the city’s extended public health emergency order as they and approximately 150 other members of Christ Church protested the order with a 15-minute Psalm Sing event outside of City Hall.
The city provided an empty parking lot for the protest, but it demanded that protestors abide by the order’s requirement that people wear face coverings in public and maintain six feet of distance from people who aren’t part of the same household. It marked the parking lot in six-foot intervals to indicate where the children’s choir — I mean protestors — could stand. Multiple media reports observed that many of the singing protestors were not masked. Police officers were on site to enforce the order, and they cited five people who did not maintain social distance, arresting three.
Now, the city has been forced to pay Rench and the Bohnets for wrongful arrest. The City of Moscow announced in a Friday news release that, along with its liability insurance provider, Idaho Counties Risk Management Program (ICRMP), it had reached a settlement. “ICRMP will pay a total settlement amount of $300,000 and all claims against the City and the named City employees will be dismissed with prejudice along with a release of all liability,” noted the press release. “This settlement provides closure of a matter related to the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic and the City’s efforts to protect the public during an exceptionally trying time,” said Moscow City Supervisor Bill Belknap.
Sean Bohnet said they reached a settlement on June 2. Half of the money will go to attorney fees, leaving $50,000 before taxes for each person wrongfully arrested.
Moscow never had much of a case against Rench and the Bohnets. While the public health emergency order did mandate masking and social distancing, it explicitly exempted “any and all expressive and associative activity that is protected by the United States and Idaho Constitutions, including speech, press, assembly, and/or religious activity.” The prosecutor evidently realized this, when he dismissed the charges against them in January 2021, before the case ever went to trial.
But the case wasn’t over yet because Rench and the Bohnets filed a civil lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho in March 2021, alleging the city and its agents had violated their First and Fourth Amendment rights. “I just went there to sing and do a peaceful protest and a worship service, which is constitutional. And I was really surprised” to be arrested, said Rench.
The City of Moscow asked Magistrate Judge Morrison England, Jr. for summary judgment in its favor. But in a February 1, 2023 decision, England denied Moscow’s motion and ordered them to settle the case. He expressed his astonishment that, “Somehow, every single City official involved overlooked the exclusionary language included in the Ordinance[,] requiring that the mayor make explicit that the Order was intended [to] apply to all constitutionally protected expressive and associative activity as well.”
“The Court typically prefers to let the parties dictate the path of their own litigation, but this is one of the most novel set of circumstances the Court has ever encountered,” the judge wrote. “Given that Plaintiffs were wrongfully arrested, the City indisputably erred in interpreting its own Code, the City consequently misadvised its officers as to the Code’s application, and Plaintiffs are so far reasonable in their damages requests, this case should not need to see the inside of a courtroom.”
“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,” argued Thomas More Society Special Counsel Erick Kaardal. “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’s liability insurer ICRMP agreed with the judge and “determined that a financial settlement in the case was the best course of action to dispose of the suit and avoid a protracted litigation proceeding,” according to the press release.
“To get this decision was fabulous,” said William Mohrman, an attorney representing Rench and the Bohnets, calling it a “huge win for us.”
But the win isn’t entirely satisfying. Sean Bohnet declared he was “happy that we came to a settlement and the case is over,” but noted that the city still has not apologized for the wrongful arrest and accompanying notoriety. Rench expressed disappointment at “the city’s refusal to talk to me individually and to actually have a productive conversation about their actions during 2020.” He spoke to the police chief, but the mayor and city council members declined to meet with him. “This is why I don’t take their admission, their tacit admission, seriously, because they really don’t care about justice.”
Rench also pointed out that city officials largely escaped any consequences for their actions, as the city’s insurance is covering the payment. “The insurance premiums are going to go up, and all they’re doing is using the citizens’ money … not to admit and cover up,” he said.
“What’s frustrating is when slander and lies get involved. Like, ‘Oh, you guys do this, you support that, you support that.’ That’s the frustrating part when people slander and tell lies about us, which happened,” said Rench. He added that fellow community members have accused him of being an “idiot” who does not “love his neighbor,” even inviting him to “take your money and run” after the settlement. Rench complained that, much like Canadian pastors in nearby Alberta, he has been falsely tarnished as a rebel, whereas, “It’s actually the city of Moscow that was defying the law.”
“It’s no secret that portions of our government and political groups are now starting to target Christians in a way that has never really happened in America or Canada,” Rench warned. “I’m in a conservative state, but I live in a liberal town, and the liberals had no problem arresting me for practicing my religious rights and my constitutional rights. … If you look at what’s going on in Canada, I think America’s 10 years, at most 20 years, behind Canada if we don’t make significant changes.”
“What needs to happen is the people need to change how they vote and disincentivize the targeting of Christians and those who are genuinely trying to defend the Constitution,” argued Rench.
Christ Church Pastor Doug Wilson compared his church’s experience in Moscow, Idaho with the politicization of law enforcement at the federal level. “It’s also what’s happening with the DOJ, only writ large. So basically, we’re dealing with the weaponization of the justice system. We are seeing it here in small-town America, and you see it in Washington, D.C.”
Jesus did not leave his church unprepared for such treatment. “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account,” he said. “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11-12).
Members of Christ Church might also take comfort from the hymn they sang as Rench was arrested, Psalm 20:
“May the Lord answer you in the day of trouble!
May the name of the God of Jacob protect you! …
Now I know that the Lord saves his anointed;
he will answer him from his holy heaven
with the saving might of his right hand.
Some trust in chariots and some in horses,
but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.
They collapse and fall,
but we rise and stand upright.” (Psalm 20:1, 6-8)
Joshua Arnold is a staff writer at The Washington Stand.