The Polk County Board of Commissioner meeting March 3 brought about 100 people with several speaking on a controversial invocation given at the county's last meeting. Here, Gary Poague (left) and Scott Woodworth (right) having a discussion at the close of the commissioners' meeting. (photo by Leah Justice)
The Polk County Board of Commissioner meeting March 3 brought about 100 people with several speaking on a controversial invocation given at the county's last meeting. Here, Gary Poague (left) and Scott Woodworth (right) having a discussion at the close of the commissioners' meeting. (photo by Leah Justice)

Prayer controversy creeps into county meeting again

Published 8:18pm Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Feb. 17 Polk County Board of Commissioner’s invocation did not show up on the BOC meeting agenda this week, but that didn’t stop local residents from addressing it, with comments being made both for and against the recent invocation.
About 100 people attended the county’s March 3 meeting with 14 residents speaking on non-agenda items. Most comments addressed Pastor Thomas Olson’s controversial Feb. 17 invocation.
The first two citizen comments were in favor of Olson’s invocation.
Scott Woodworth said he understands there was some sort of an uproar over the last meeting’s invocation. He said whether he agrees or disagrees with the length, the content or anything else, isn’t his call.
“Everyone should have the right to come up and do their part,” Woodworth said.
Woodworth said the first amendment of the United States Constitution prohibits the making any law respecting an establishment of religion. It doesn’t prohibit religion, he said.
“Number two, impeding the fr

ee exercise of religion; three, abridging the freedom of speech; four, infringing on the freedoms of the press; five, interfering with the right to peaceably assemble or six, prohibiting the petitioning for government redress of grievances,” said Woodworth. “This was adopted Dec. 15, 1791.”
He said if his beliefs are at odds with another person’s beliefs that person has a right to express those beliefs in contrast to his, not remove his right because it offends that person.
“Polk County government is neither accepting nor rejecting comments from its citizens but allows each citizen to express themselves regardless of what the subject matter might be,” said Woodworth. “When we start to play favorites of what is acceptable and what isn’t, we have stopped the free expression of ideas and solutions for fear of offending someone and that includes the opening prayer, as well as saluting the flag or any other procedure this body so adopts. You have the right to leave if any of this offends you, just as I have the right to stay even if something offends me. I’m strong enough to allow another persons’ views or beliefs, but that does not mean I have to accept them. Others should be as strong in their convictions and not be threatened by someone voicing their ideas or beliefs including the opening prayer. The opening prayer does not threaten or force anyone to do anything.”
Debbie Arceneaux said she was pretty shocked by some of the comments made in the Bulletin about the prayer. One gentleman wanted to leave the county, she said.
“Today another gentleman wrote, ‘I’ll put $5 on the table if that helps you move.’ I’ll up the ante,” Arceneaux said, “I’ll give him $1,000 to help him move. I think it’s insane, I think it’s ridiculous.”
Arceneaux said she knows that culturally, Polk County is a religious community and they believe in God and they believe in Jesus or whoever is their God.
“But you get all these people that come into the county and they want to change everything,” she said. “Well, I don’t want to change everything and I think if we took a vote today on whether or not we should remove the invocation from our building or from our meetings, I have a feeling that the local people will win on this one.”
Arceneaux also said she knows her history and the Constitution and went through religious paintings and sayings located in government buildings in Washington.
“After the last meeting I felt like I was in some kind of an Occupy Wall Street group with the screaming and the yelling and the jumping up and down,” she said. “So I’m calling this spiritual tyranny because that’s exactly what it is. We can learn from history exactly what happens when governments and people decide we need to remove this from who we are as people.”
She also spoke of the Supreme Court and the many references to God in the building and courtroom, including images of Moses and the 10 commandments.
“Our leaders in Washington have Bible study classes and pray and I think it’s really sad when we have a group of people that can come to our county and in our room and our buildings and tell us that we are no longer free to express ourselves religiously,” said Arceneaux.
Michael Thomas also spoke in fav

or of prayer and said as a Christian, he fears we are going towards a Godless country. He spoke of why he prays and what is important about prayer.
“I realize others don’t have the same opinion as I do and that’s OK,” said Thomas.
Alan Kearns was the first to speak against the prayer and said he mirrored what many have written in the Tryon Daily Bulletin.
“First of all, it is our inalienable right to pray,” Kearns said. “I’m not questioning that whatsoever.”
He quoted many of the comments that had been written saying he agreed with them, such as “hatred and bigotry cannot be tolerated, religion should be about forgiveness, embracing all people and races, sectarian prayer is not allowed at board of commissioner meetings according to the fourth circuit court of appeals. We should be focusing on county business and not stirring up a religious hornet’s nest. I was appalled, found it hateful and unjust. If we are ever going to become a nation based on the love that Jesus Christ tried to teach us, we need to accept the way God made us. My expectation is for commissioners and elected officials to be leaders and not purveyors of hate.
“If you feel the need to pray, pray before you walk in here and do the peoples’ business,” said Kearns.
James Hrynyshyn said the inclusion of prayer or invocation or any sort of religious element at a public meeting in this country is a very problematic thing and he thinks last week’s example proves his point.
He said he would like to hear an apology

from the board of commissioners on allowing the prayer that came at the previous meeting.
“It was just completely intolerable that we had hatred and bigotry and intolerance,” Hrynyshyn said. “It greatly troubles me. I have friends and family who are the kind of people that were disparaged in that invocation or in that sermon and it simply has no place. The courts have ruled on this. The law is quite clear. Your jobs are to deal with secular issues.”
Clarence Chavez said he attended the last commissioners’ meeting when “what was disguised as a prayer turned out to be a political diatribe filled with hate speech.”
He asked that in the future the county not introduce such hate and controversy.
Deon Dunn asked where does it state that a public body, such as the board of commissioners must review and agree to the content of a prayer before it is given. That is not free speech that our founding fathers established, said Dunn.
“How about we apply that to whomever stands up to voice their comments at this podium during a meeting or any other meeting,” said Dunn. “Wouldn’t that be the same philosophy infringed upon their right to free speech?”
Dunn said people cannot say they are for free speech then attempt to shut down the speech they disagree with.
“If you do not agree with that person or what he/she is saying, then you have the choice to listen or walk away,” Dunn said. “I know that it is hard to believe, but it is that simple. If all speech at the BOC or any other event was to be censored, to whom would all comments be directed and reviewed prior to being spoken?”
Dunn also said one letter to the editor referred to Christian prayer as thorny.
“It was Jesus who bore the thorns while carrying the cross and gave us Christianity,” Dunn said, “yet the author would rather refer to it as divisive and offensive. Please remind me what religious principles this great nation was founded on and what was it about the prayer that made it unchristian.”
The invocation on March 3 came from Rev. Larry A. Romich, senior pastor of Mt. Valley Pentecostal Holiness Church in Tryon.
Romich asked the heavenly Father for wisdom so lead might govern this great county. He asked for insight that we would know the issues of today and how to solve them and the foresight so the decisions we make today will be good for the future. He also asked the Lord that he give us the

ability to take your great people in this county and cause them to prosper as well as the schools, cities, buildings, churches and people to receive His blessings and give us the wisdom to make decisions that would honor Him. Romich asked his prayer in the name of your son, Amen.
David Maxwell said, “Mr. (Larry) Romich gave us a model for how invocations should be handled.”
Following the comments, commissioners did not address the prayer or whether or not the board is considering making changes to its policies regarding prayers.

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