Idaho city wrong to arrest hymn singers at outdoor worship gathering: court rules

A group of people organized by a local church sing hymns outside of city hall in Moscow, Idaho in September 2020.
A group of people organized by a local church sing hymns outside of city hall in Moscow, Idaho in September 2020. | Screengrab: YouTube/Daniel Foucachon

A court has rejected a motion from an Idaho city to dismiss a lawsuit filed by three people who were arrested during a 2020 worship protest outside city hall that included hymn singing.

In September 2020, a group organized by Christ Church of Moscow gathered outside Moscow city hall to protest gathering restrictions by singing hymns. During the event, Gabriel Rench, Sean Bohnet and Rachel Bohnet were arrested for not wearing masks and not being socially distanced from other attendees.

Senior United States District Judge Morrison C. England Jr. issued a memorandum and order last week denying the city of Moscow’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit by three people arrested during the hymn singing protest.

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“Plaintiffs should never have been arrested in the first place, and the constitutionality of what the City thought it’s Code said is irrelevant,” ruled England, who described the “prosecutors’ charging decisions” as “flawed.”

“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 …”

England did, however, also conclude that “Plaintiffs’ claims are not without their own issues,” citing a couple of potential objections to the protesters’ litigation against the city.

“For example, the Court fails to see how the individual officers can be held liable for constitutional violations when they were explicitly briefed by the experts on the applicable laws and were advised that the Order should be enforced at Plaintiffs’ event,” the order continued.

“Since the Order is no longer in effect in any form, and because Plaintiffs should not have been arrested in the first place, it is also questionable whether Plaintiffs can show any entitlement to declaratory or injunctive relief.”

England also encouraged both parties “to take a step back from their respective positions and prepare to negotiate in good faith,” believing that “this case should not need to see the inside of a courtroom.”

The Thomas More Society, which is helping to represent the three protesters, celebrated the order in a statement released Monday, saying that the plaintiffs “have triumphed over the city of Moscow, Idaho, after suing the city and its officials for their unlawful arrest.”

In March 2020, as many cities in the United States locked down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Moscow city officials passed an ordinance that granted the mayor the power to pass emergency health orders in an attempt to curb the spread of the virus.

The mayor’s order required facemasks to be worn for any gathering where social distancing was not practiced and required social distancing of at least 6 feet when possible. The order exempted assorted gatherings, including religious services.

In September 2020, Christ Church held a protest outside city hall, with around 200 people standing most in socially distanced fashion and singing hymns. Authorities arrested three attendees — Rench and the Bohnet — for refusing to follow the gathering guidelines.

Although the city eventually dropped its charges against the three protesters and repealed the pandemic ordinance, the three filed suit against officials due to the extensive legal costs they incurred.

The plaintiffs filed suit against the city, claiming, among other things, that officials violated their First Amendment rights when they arrested them for not obeying the gathering restrictions.

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