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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Moscow settles with three ‘psalm sing’ protesters

By Matt Baney Lewiston Tribune

Three people who sued the city of Moscow for allegedly violating their First Amendment rights during a 2020 religious gathering will be paid a total of $300,000 to settle their civil lawsuit, the city announced Friday.

Gabriel Rench and Sean and Rachel Bohnet had sued the city over an incident in September 2020 when they were part of a Christ Church event at the Moscow City Hall parking lot. The “psalm sing” was intended to be a protest of the city’s mandate for masks and social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Moscow police cited Rench, the Bohnets and two others for suspicion of violating the city’s public health emergency order. In addition to the citations, Rench was arrested but not charged with allegedly refusing to identify himself to police, and the Bohnets were arrested for suspicion of resisting or obstructing officers after allegedly refusing to identify themselves.

The city dismissed the charges in January 2021 because the public health order, while intended to apply to all people in the city, did not specifically say it applied to speech, press, assembly and/or religious activity protected by the Idaho and U.S. constitutions.

Rench and the Bohnets filed their civil lawsuit against Moscow in U.S. District Court for the District of Idaho in March 2021.

This past February, U.S. District Judge Morrison England Jr. denied Moscow’s motion for summary judgment and ordered the city to reach a settlement out of court with Rench and the Bohnets.

Sean Bohnet, 26, and Rachel Bohnet, 28, are a married couple who live in Moscow.

Sean Bohnet said in an interview Friday he was “happy that we came to a settlement and the case is over.” He also pointed out that a payment doesn’t exactly equate to an apology from the city.

The Bohnets found themselves in the public eye following the 2020 incident, Sean said.

“What’s frustrating is when slander and lies get involved. Like, ‘Oh, you guys do this, you support that, you support that.’ That’s the frustrating part when people slander and tell lies about us, which happened.”

Rench, 44, said he was disappointed over “the city’s refusal to talk to me individually and to actually have a productive conversation about their actions during 2020, and violating their oaths of office. This wasn’t a minor thing; this was pretty egregious what the city did, and what the cops did. They all violated their oaths of office.”

Rench said Mayor Art Bettge and city council members Gina Taruscio declined to meet with him following the incident, but he did speak with Moscow Police Chief James Fry and some officers.

“This is why I don’t take their admission, their tacit admission, seriously, because they really don’t care about justice,” Rench said. “The insurance premiums are going to go up, and all they’re doing is using the citizens’ money … not to admit and cover up.”

Rench was a Republican candidate for the Latah County Commission at the time of the “psalm sing” event. He appeared on Fox News’ the Ingraham Angle the day after the incident.

The city announced the settlement in a news release distributed Friday afternoon. The settlement was reached by the city and its liability insurance provider, Idaho Counties Risk Management Program.

Sean Bohnet said the settlement was reached June 2. Half of the money, $150,000, will go to attorney fees, which will leave $50,000 apiece for each of the three complainants. Rench said he and the Bohnets will have to pay taxes on the money they receive.

According to the city’s news release, “ICRMP determined that a financial settlement in the case was the best course of action to dispose of the suit and avoid a protracted litigation proceeding. Under the terms of the settlement agreement, ICRMP will pay a total settlement amount of $300,000 and all claims against the City and the named City employees will be dismissed with prejudice along with a release of all liability.”

The news release ended with this sentence: “This settlement provides closure of a matter related to the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic and the City’s efforts to protect the public during an exceptionally trying time.”