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Why Moscow is asking court to dismiss charges against 'worship protest' participants

About 150 people attended Christ Church's event in September. Photos and videos showed that most of them were not wearing masks.
Credit: Daniel Foucachon
Gabriel Rench arrest at Christ Church event in Moscow

MOSCOW, Idaho — The City of Moscow's legal department has asked the court to dismiss misdemeanor charges against five people who violated a public health order while attending a church event in September 2020.

The order in Moscow requires people who are not members of the same household to maintain six feet of physical distance from one another or wear a face covering while they are in public. It was recently extended through June 9, 2021.

Christ Church in Moscow held the first of two "Psalm Sing" events at City Hall on Sept. 23, 2020. Photos and videos of the event showed that most of the nearly 150 people in attendance did not wear masks. 

Two of the five people who were cited at the event for their refusal to comply with COVID-19 orders were also cited for resisting and obstructing officers.

Three people were arrested and released from custody the same day. One of those who was arrested called the church event a "worship protest."

The city did not report any arrests or citations stemming from the second event held in Friendship Square on Oct. 7, 2020. 

RELATED: After arrests at first event, Moscow church gathers in town square on Wednesday

The city explained in a press release on Friday, Jan. 8 why it asked the court to dismiss the charges. 

City code gives Moscow's mayor the authority to issue public health emergency orders and provides exemptions for them, stating that, "unless otherwise specifically prohibited by a Public Health Emergency Order," any and all expressive and associative activity that is protected by the United States and Idaho Constitutions, including speech, press, assembly, and/or religious activity is exempt.

The emergency order states that it applies to "every person in the City of Moscow," but does not specifically provide that it applies to the activity protected the U.S. and Idaho Constitutions, the city said in a press release. As the actions of those who were cited at the church event could be included in those activities, the city decided to move for dismissal of the charges. 

"Navigating unprecedented circumstances has been the hallmark of 2020 and continues into 2021," said City Supervisor Gary Riedner. "The omission by City staff to include the specific language to include the expressive and associative activities is unfortunate and has resulted in confusion."

"The Mayor and City Council intended that Amended Public Health Emergency Order 20-03 apply to all persons in the City, regardless of the nature of activities. I apologize for the staff's role in that confusion; however, I am proud of the City Attorney's office for discovering the omission, and dismissal of the citations is the right thing to do," Riedner added. 

City Attorney Mia Bautista confirmed that the public health order is "effective and valid for all activities" that are not exempt, according to the press release.

"The Legal Department and Moscow Police Department will continue to investigate and prosecute violations of Emergency Order 20-03 and any violations of future emergency orders and prosecute violations of the mandatory provisions of Idaho Governor Brad Little's Stage 2 Order," Bautista said in part. "In addition, the Mayor and City Council have directed that staff prepare recommended amendments to Moscow City Code to address these issues."

The Administrative Committee of the City Council will consider the recommendations at its upcoming meeting scheduled for 4 p.m. on Jan. 11. The full city council will then consider any recommendations at its regular meeting scheduled for 7 p.m. on Jan. 19.

RELATED: Four Spokane businesses fined by Washington Labor and Industries for mask, operating violations