Christians Win Settlement for Wrongful Arrest During Pandemic

Jul 31, 2023

MOSCOW, IDAHO – The City of Moscow, Idaho agreed last week to pay a $300,000 settlement to a group of Christians for violating their constitutional rights when city police arrested them for outdoor singing without wearing masks while protesting COVID-19 pandemic restrictions. 

In September 2020, the city issued a public health order mandating masks and social distancing in public. In peaceful protest to those restrictions, nearly 200 Christians without masks gathered outside city hall to worship and sing hymns where three Christians were arrested for allegedly violating the order and were detained in jail for several hours. The city later dropped all the charges after realizing the city’s order was inconsistent with the city’s “Emergency Powers Ordinance” exempting religious activity from pandemic-related orders.

Gabriel Rench and Sean and Rachel Bohnet filed a civil lawsuit against the city alleging their arrest violated their First and Fourth Amendment rights of free expression and peaceable assembly. U.S. District Judge Court Judge Morrison C. England, Jr., sided in their favor stating the city “indisputably erred” in interpreting its own ordinance and “misadvised” its law enforcement officers on the order’s application.

Judge England wrote in the order, “…every single City official involved overlooked the exclusionary language [of constitutionally protected behavior] in the Ordinance….” 

Judge England stated the city’s ordinance clearly protected expressive activity and excluded worship services from the mask or social distance mandate. 

“[The] Plaintiffs should never have been arrested in the first place, and the constitutionality of what the City thought its Code said is irrelevant,” Judge England concluded. 

Under the terms of the settlement, the City of Moscow and its liability insurance provider will pay the $300,000 to avoid any further litigation or liability regarding the case. According to Rench, he estimates their wrongful arrest and subsequent litigation cost the City of Moscow about $500,000, including the settlement. Rench states about half of the settlement will cover legal costs and about $150,000 will be donated to persecuted Christians. 

Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mat Staver said, “Arresting peaceful Christian worshippers exercising their constitutionally protected rights is a serious threat to freedom. Public health orders are not a means to circumvent the First Amendment. There is no pandemic pause button on the Constitution. Thankfully, our Constitution protects our religious freedoms from government overreach.”

Liberty Counsel provides broadcast quality TV interviews via Hi-Def Skype and LTN at no cost.