In the small city of Moscow, Idaho, three members of Christ Church found themselves at the center of a legal battle over their First Amendment rights. Gabriel Rench, and Sean and Rachel Bohnet were arrested in September 2020 during a "Psalm Sing" protest outside the Moscow City Hall. At the time, the city was enforcing a COVID-19 mask mandate issued by Mayor Bill Lambert. However, the city's ordinance included an exception for First Amendment activities.
Determined to challenge the unlawful arrests, the trio turned to the Thomas More Society for legal representation. Special Counsel Erick Kaardal took on the case, arguing that Rench and the Bohnets were arrested despite law enforcement officers being aware of the First Amendment protections under the mayor's emergency order. According to Kaardal, the city violated its own ordinance, with the arresting officers demonstrating reckless indifference to the citizens' First Amendment rights. He accused the city's law enforcement department of being "weaponized" to target critics of the city government.In an unexpected turn, Moscow officials claimed that the ordinance under which the church members were arrested was ambiguous.
However, Senior United States District Judge Morrison C. England, Jr. disagreed. In an order dated February 1, 2023, he denied the city's Motion for Summary Judgment and sent the case for settlement.Judge England wrote, "The City’s Code could not be more clear: Under a plain reading of the Order in conjunction with the Ordinance, all expressive activity was excluded from the mask or distance mandate because such [as in this case] conduct was not explicitly addressed in the Order itself." He concluded that the plaintiffs should never have been arrested in the first place.The Moscow prosecuting attorney seemed to agree with Judge England's assessment, as he moved to dismiss the arrest charges against Rench and the Bohnets several months after the arrests.
He explained that exemptions under city codes included "any and all expressive and associative activity protected by the U.S. and Idaho constitutions, including speech, press, assembly, and/or religious activity." With the help of the Thomas More Society, the trio successfully championed their First Amendment rights, shedding light on the importance of defending constitutional liberties even in times of crisis.