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Senior United States District Judge Morrision C. England rejected a request by city officials of Moscow, ID, to dismiss a lawsuit filed by three Christians arrested due to alleged violations of COVID-19 restrictions. Gabriel Rench, along with Sean and Rachel Bohnet of Christ Church, were arrested in September 2020 for not wearing masks during an outdoor church event. The event was deemed a “worship protest” by Rench, who, along with the Bohnets, was not the only person unmasked during the near-150 person event. The three individuals were released the same day and filed the lawsuit with the help of the Thomas More Society. 

The lawsuit stated that the arrests violated the individual’s First Amendment rights, which the city’s own ordinances protected. In a press release, Sean Bohnet criticized the double standards of the city’s mask mandates. “We thought a city that would premeditatively break the law in order to detain and jail those lawfully not wearing masks would at least offer one to incarcerated people. However, we were in good company. Staff at the jail occasionally had no issue with letting their faces freely shine, too,” he said. After the three were arrested, the Moscow City Council amended the city’s emergency health ordinances so that it could also apply to political speech as well. The Bohnets’ and Rench’s attorneys argued such a move was unconstitutional. “Instead, the city council revised its order to target myself and others who would exercise their constitutional rights. The council’s actions have fragmented Moscow and increased hostility in the broader community,” said Rench of the move.

In his decision to not dismiss the lawsuit, Judge England said, “Plaintiffs should never have been arrested in the first place, and the constitutionality of what the City thought its Code said is irrelevant.” He also added that “… 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 …” He did state that the lawsuit did have some issues, such as trying to hold individual officers involved in the arrests responsible. He encouraged both parties to negotiate a resolution without having to “see the inside of a courtroom.” 

The lawsuit is not the first to be turned favorably for Christians during the COVID-19 pandemic. The state of California and LA County agreed to pay John MacArthur’s Grace Community Church $800,000 after the church refused to close indoor worship during the pandemic. The Thomas More Society also represented the church during its legal battle, and MacArthur stated they would be receiving the settlement money. “Nothing will come to us except the affirmation that the Lord preserved and protected us through this,” said MacArthur.

Churches and religious institutions faced intense scrutiny and legal ramifications during the pandemic. A Pew Research Center study found that nearly a quarter of global entities had used physical means “such as arrests and prison sentences, to enforce coronavirus-related restrictions on worship services and other religious gatherings.” The Georgia Baptist Board listed out a series of instances where churches were prohibited from even outdoor drive-in services, which were never linked to the increased spread of the virus. It also pointed out that in some areas, drive-in services were banned while drive-in restaurants were permitted to continue. It pointed out how Nevada had reopened casinos at 50% while churches were still limited to only 50 people, regardless of congregation size. The Georgia Baptist Board concluded their list, writing, “Public officials certainly have the authority to protect health and public safety, but the First Amendment — including the free exercise of religion — is not suspended during times of crisis. And unfortunately, it seems that some governments across the country are all too eager to shut down churches and single them out for worse treatment.”

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