COVID Crackdown Backfire: Moscow, Idaho Settles with Churchgoers Over Masking

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Sometimes the good guys get a win.

The city of Moscow, Idaho, is settling a lawsuit with three Christian churchgoers for $300,000 after they were arrested for not wearing masks at an outdoor service during the COVID-19 pandemic. The churchgoers alleged that their First and Fourth Amendment rights were violated.

The arrests were filmed and gained widespread attention, with former President Trump condemning them on Twitter. The judge later dismissed the city’s case against the churchgoers, stating that they should not have been arrested, and the settlement provides closure on the matter related to pandemic restrictions.

The city of Moscow announced this week that it would settle with Gabriel Rench, as well as Sean and Rachel Bohnet, who brought a case against city leaders in March 2021, alleging that the city violated their Constitutional rights:

Footage of the arrests, which went viral and were condemned on Twitter at the time by then-President Trump, showed officers taking Rench’s hymn book before leading him away in handcuffs to the county jail, where he and the others were detained for several hours.

The peaceful psalm-singing protest lasted about 20 minutes in front of Moscow City Hall, where city officials had placed small yellow dots six feet apart as social distancing guidance for the participants.

Rench and the others were charged with violating the city’s repeatedly extended health ordinance, which carved out exemptions for activities protected under the U.S. Constitution and the Idaho State Constitution, including religious activity.

A magistrate judge later dismissed the city’s case against them, and U.S. District Court Judge Morrison C. England, Jr., wrote in his Feb. 1, 2023 memorandum and order denying the city’s motion to dismiss that the “plaintiffs should never have been arrested in the first place, and the constitutionality of what the City thought [its] code said is irrelevant.”

“Somehow, every single City official involved overlooked the exclusionary language [of constitutionally protected behavior] in the Ordinance,” the judge further wrote.

This is a significant win for liberty.

The outcome highlights the importance of safeguarding individuals’ constitutional rights, and it also exposes the problematic actions taken by the city authorities.

The plaintiffs rightly claimed that their First and Fourth Amendment rights were violated during the arrests. The First Amendment protects the right to freedom of speech, religion, and peaceful assembly, while the Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable searches and seizures. These rights are the foundation of a free and democratic society, ensuring that individuals can express themselves, practice their faith, and gather without fear of government interference.

The problematic actions of the city authorities lie in their enforcement of health ordinances that seemed to selectively target religious activities. While the city had carved out exemptions for constitutionally protected behavior, including religious activity, the churchgoers were still charged with violating the health ordinance. This discrepancy indicates a failure on the part of the city officials to uphold their duty to respect and protect the constitutional rights of their citizens, regardless of personal beliefs.

Furthermore, the judge who denied the city’s motion to dismiss the case made it clear that the churchgoers should never have been arrested in the first place. The judge’s memorandum and order emphasized that the constitutionality of the city’s code was irrelevant since it was evident that the arrests were a violation of the plaintiffs’ rights.

This settlement serves as an essential reminder that even during times of crisis, such as a pandemic, the fundamental rights of citizens must be upheld and respected. While public health measures are crucial in protecting the well-being of communities, they should not come at the expense of constitutional rights. Striking a balance between public safety and individual liberties is of paramount importance for any society that values democracy and personal freedoms.

The impact of this case extends beyond Idaho, as it highlights the broader challenges faced by individuals of faith across the nation. There have been concerns about the political and governmental targeting of Christians and those who defend the Constitution. Gabriel Rench’s remarks about potential similarities with situations in neighboring Canada indicate a growing sense of unease about the erosion of religious freedoms and constitutional protections.

Perhaps lawsuits like this will discourage other cities from engaging in the same conduct in the event of another pandemic or disaster. The COVID-19 pandemic showed us just how much Americans will take from their governments, which was quite disturbing. But at least some were willing to fight back. Hopefully, the pandemic showed enough people how far our government will go to assert its dominance over the rest of us.


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