Residents respond to county meeting invocation

Published 12:16 am Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A prayer given at the Feb. 17 Polk County Board of Commissioner meeting stirred debate throughout the county regarding whether or not specific types of prayers should be allowed in a government setting.

Pastor Thomas Olson, with the Trinity Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in Tryon, was invited to offer the invocation. The Bulletin quickly began receiving calls and emails about the prayer and asked residents through Facebook and its website to comment on whether or not they agreed with the prayer. There were 20 responses made against the prayer and four in favor of the prayer as of Monday afternoon, Feb. 24.

Olson’s prayer, which took approximately four minutes to read (see the full prayer at, began by thanking God for blessing us with our American homeland and for the many who have and continue to serve this nation. Olson prayed for community leadership reflective of the great presidents, naming George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, whose commitment to freedom and strict moral standing set a course of greatness for the people of the United States.

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The following excerpt from Olson’s prayer has caused the most controversy from some residents, while others say they hope the county commissioners feel the same way as Olson.

“Deliver us from those destructive laws and godless practices that are tearing apart the holy institutions of marriage and family among us, institutions established by God in the creation of man as male and female, with the command to be fruitful and multiply,” Olson said in his prayer. “Save us from rampant no-fault divorce, illicit sexuality by live-in partners, the public promotion of homosexual lifestyles which endangers our young and leads directly to the corruption of our boys especially; the proliferation of children of single moms fueled by economic encouragement and worst of all the indefensible slaughter of the unborn in our beloved homeland based on the deceitful and dishonest judgments of a few evil men over 40 years ago. Help us see the good that we can do here in Polk County to curb the spread of lawlessness and the abuse of children and help us stand for decency, with sound instruction in our schools, with honesty and integrity in business and government, and with committed husband- wife and father-mother relationships in our homes.”

Olson submitted a letter to the editor to the Bulletin following his invocation on Tuesday, Feb. 18 (see full letter, pg. 15; see Olson’s full response to the Bulletin at

Olson said he was asked to give the invocation at the meeting and realizing this was to take place on President’s Day he took to heart words President George Washington said in his farewell address on Sept. 19, 1796. Olson said in Washington’s address he informed citizens he would not stand for re-election and thanked the people for the high privilege to serve and for their confidence in him.

“Given those words by President Washington, at whatever public or political meeting a preacher might be asked to pray on the day of Washington’s birthday celebration, that preacher would not be worth his salt—especially in this day of great moral crisis—were he not to pray for the very specific needs of the people and implore God to deliver this nation and our own Polk County from a debilitating lack of ‘National morality,’” Olson responded in his letter.

Olson continued to say in government the church has no authority, yet the church has the right to speak and be heard in society, which is the very opportunity given to pastors to offer prayers to God to open government meetings.

“Those who cry ‘separation of church and state’ to prohibit such prayers betray their misunderstanding of the First Amendment: ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise, thereof…’,” said Olson. “This in no way applies to county commissions requesting area pastors to pray at their public meetings.”

Some supporters of the prayer said they believe in the power of prayer and are not offended by what Olson said.

Some supporters of the prayer said they believe in the power of prayer and are not offended by what Olson said.

Kelli Duncan said as a follower of Jesus Christ she believes the Word of God is true.

“Jesus died to cover us from our sinful nature and redeem us back into relationship with God the Father,” said Duncan. “I am here to say that all sin is wrong and I have committed a lot of them. But, Jesus Christ covered my sin by His blood when I asked Him to be my Lord and turned from my ways. He gives unconditional love and grace to us who do not deserve it. He calls us to do the same. He says to love one another as He has loved us…He laid down His life for us. We must be willing to do the same. Sin does not define who we are…and all sin is equal. We must still love each other and pray for those who have not found freedom in Christ. I am not offended by anything in this prayer because I know who I am without Jesus and it is not a pretty picture. I am thankful someone is willing to pray boldly for our community.”

David Michael Toney said “if you ask someone to say a prayer to open a meeting, then expect a prayer people.”

“And since it is not you saying the prayer, expect the prayer to be from the heart of the person saying that prayer,” Toney said. “Not everyone will agree with your beliefs. Big deal, suck it up and stop all the political correctness crap. That’s the real shame here, the religion of political correctness where everyone must act and think the same. We don’t want to offend ole Bill sitting over there because his nephew is gay or offend Mary over there because in her absolute refusal to obey the creator’s rules of life she has decided there is no God to pray to. Let the preachers pray and if you don’t want to listen, or bow your head and close your eyes, don’t. The majority of us are Christians in this area and even if we are offended by your lifestyles, we respect your choice to choose your fate, respect ours!”

Lori Lookadoo said she believes in the power of prayer.

“I am thankful to live in a place that is blanketed by prayer and for those that still stand for the transforming grace, mercy and love of Jesus,” Lookadoo said. “Because of this, our county will abound with blessings from God.

“I stand on the side of Jesus Christ. He is the balance of love, grace and mercy, as well as the standard of righteousness and holiness. Because of my belief in Jesus, I have been extended grace and that has covered my sinful state. The standards found within the Bible are set for those seeking to be Christ-like and not to condemn sinners but instead, our sinful desires and nature.”

The majority of residents who responded to the prayer said that particular prayer did not belong in a government setting.

Jane Oakes was one who said the inclusion of prayer, “especially such an anti-human one,” has no place in any government congregation and is a “blatant violation of the First Amendment.” Oakes said she is appalled and deeply frightened by Olson’s prayer.

“It is the most intolerant, hateful, unjust statement of religious fanaticism that I have ever heard,” Oakes said.

Oakes said it frightens her that some people in a country that calls itself free would tolerate words that violate “human beingness -people who claim to be on the side of ‘justice, equality and liberty’ (for whom we wonder-white, Christian, never divorced, heterosexual men, I assume).”

“If we are ever to become a nation based on the love that Jesus Christ tried to teach us, we need to accept each other the way God made us,” said Oakes.

Stuart Evans said to use a public forum to give a sermon in the form of prayer by Pastor Olson was very presumptuous and inappropriate.

“I am glad my God is not so vindictive,” said Evans.

Greg “Moose” Penfold said Olson’s prayer is simply put, “disgusting and disturbing.”

Penfold also sent his comments and questions to county commissioners.

“It’s not possible for me to understand a commissioner not interrupting in the middle of this hate filled diatribe and saying, ‘that’s enough, take you seat now or leave,’” Penfold said. “Had I been present I assure you I would have spoken up and prevented him from continuing.”

Penfold said as a Polk resident it is his expectation for elected officials to be leaders and not purveyors of hatred.

“I do not object to prayer, however, in a public setting if the prayer asks for the blessing of grace it should be done with grace.  If the prayer asks for wisdom the speaker should use wisdom, when the gift of health and safety is sought it should not exclude anyone. Tom Olson did none of this, no grace, no wisdom and certainly he excluded many.  His words in a public meeting for all who live in Polk County are not even close to appropriate,” Penfold said to commissioners. “Would you please explain to me why, at a public meeting (public, meaning open to all of us living in Polk county) you allowed this commentary (“prayer”) to continue unchallenged, or at the very least, why you have not made comments stating that the “prayer” does not represent the views of the commissioners and Polk County as a whole.”

Doug Arbogast asked if it is legal to open a county commissioner meeting with a prayer. Arbogast said it throws Polk County back to the 19th century and it may be a good time to research more about Abe Lincoln and his homosexual behavior.

“A gentle ease back to the 20th century would not have surprised me given the make up of the board of commissioners, but the giant slap in the face to so many local residents makes me want to move away from the county as soon as possible,” Arbogast said. “If all the gay and single moms and creative people moved from this region it would be a very bland place to live. Those holier than thous wouldn’t have their high hair-dos for Sunday mornin’ Bible class.”

Margaret Curtis said too often in life people use religion to justify and disguise their “obvious personal shortcomings.”

“Reverend Olson’s invocation at the last commissioners meeting is a sad example of hatefulness paraded as ‘Christianity’ and all the more shameful at a government meeting,” Curtis said. “Polk County is too diverse to tolerate such ugliness directed towards our neighbors, whether they are gay or single mothers or members of any other group Mr. Olson feels superior to. Ironically, Mr. Olson rants against both abortion and single mothers, which shows how well thought out his opinions are.”

Curtis said sadly there have always been churches that rally for hate, those that rallied against interracial marriage, using many of the same arguments we hear today about gay marriage. Curtis mentioned Christian identity churches that promote white supremacy and Westboro Baptist.

“These ‘christians in name only’ are an unpleasant fact of life,” said Curtis. “Occasionally we are even forced to listen to their thinly veiled self-loathing. But we don’t have to accept it and luckily we are able to vote out the politicians that condone such chauvinism, especially those who invite them to speak.”

Dana Mayer said she would like to think of Christianity, or any religion, as something that does not involve judging others.

“My opinion is that religion should be about acceptance and should embrace all people and all races,” said Mayer. “I also find it very disturbing that this was said at a county commissioners meeting, which in my opinion is not the time or place for this pastor’s opinion.”

Russ Woods said the prayer is a specific political agenda masquerading as a spiritual benediction.

“It’s injection into local government is reprehensible and a direct affront to the principles our country was founded on,” Woods said.

Emmy Summers said she was appalled and distressed to read Pastor Olson’s invocation.

“Not only did I find it divisive, political and profoundly offensive, I not it spoke only to a Christian God (and certainly not the one most Christians are familiar with),” said Summers. “Despite what many people believe, our nation was specifically founded to ensure the freedom of each individual to worship and believe in the manner of his or her own choosing…Although Pastor Olson’s beliefs may be distasteful and disagreeable to many, our country’s servicemen and women have sacrificed and died to preserve his right to believe what he wants and to worship and pray in the manner of his choosing, in his home and in his church.”

Summers said it was the majority of the board of commissioners who suborned, supported, invited and encouraged only those whose social, political and religious beliefs mirror their own.

“The rest of the county finds themselves discouraged, ignored and disenfranchised,” Summers said. “It was the commissioners who invited Pastor Olson to deliver the invocation and the commissioners who did not put a stop to his highly inappropriate rant. And so as much as some would like to blame Pastor Olson, the true fault lies at the feet of the commissioner majority.”

Mary Wells Prioleau said Pastor Olson’s invocation in her opinion was a rant seeking to demonize those in the community he sees unworthy and to summon God’s wrath upon them.

“As a Christian who deeply values invocations and believes strongly in the power of prayer, I am appalled by his attempt to marginalize and strip the dignity from so many: Couples who’ve been unable or chosen not to have children, those who are divorced, gays, single mothers, co-habitating adults, pro-choice advocates, etc.,” Prioleau said. “I am not certain exactly what century Pastor Olson inhabits but I am certain that the Polk County I am devoted to today is filled with responsible, good and productive citizens who fall in to these categories. Without doubt Pastor Olson and I have distinctly different understandings of Christianity and that is precisely why invocations, at public meetings, should be spoken with the utmost sensitivity ensuring all present know that their dignity is valued equally.

“Pastor Olson is free to spew his uncharitable views within the confines of his own church to his fellow travelers. Albeit, there is no excuse for him, or anyone, being allowed to say such things at a government meeting, which ostensibly serves the entire constituency of this county.

“I am saddened by the commissioners’ apparent support of his ramblings and their seeming disregard for the feelings of the citizenry or the overall image of Polk County.

“Why did no one speak up and stop this? What is being done to ensure this never happens again?”

Frederick M. Tesche said the preacher, his followers and the commissioners do have the right to express these dogmatic religious beliefs, however, they should have been made in the proper setting; a church where one can choose to attend.

“Such statements in a county meeting should not be imposed upon others who may take a more enlightened view of what constitutes family values,” Tesche said. “The commissioners should strive to serve all residents of Polk County, not just those that believe the values espoused by Olson. Opening governmental meetings with such non-inclusive and offensive statements, which are couched as a prayer, should cease immediately. County business is not conducted in any particular church; prayers should not be conducted in county offices.”

Virgil Stucker said while the words “good,” “love” and “peace” in this prayer generally lift the human spirit and unify us, the words of hatred and misunderstanding that surround them appear meant to divide us.

“Since one of the responsibilities of our county commissioners is to help us build a strong and enduring county and community fabric, I am puzzled why they invited such an inflammatory prayer into a public meeting,” Stucker said. “My hope is that they did not intend to hurt the community and may consider apologizing for the pain they have inadvertently created.”

Chet Chavez said the prayer got into issues that he thought were less religious in nature and more political.

“I was disturbed by the way he spoke about homosexuals, by the way he spoke of abortion and the evil men who created it,” said Chavez.

Chavez said he would defend Olson’s right to speak to the death because he believes in that, but he also believes there is a time and place for everything.

“We could have walked out of the meeting, we could have turned our back, but we were stunned,” Chavez said. “That was not a prayer in my opinion. It was a political diatribe.”

Sharon Tesche said she was taken aback when she read this “rambling, hateful and bigoted ‘prayer.’”

“Who would want to move to our beautiful county if they thought that we all felt this way?” Sharon Tesche asked.

Susan McNabb said unlike many local governments, Polk County commissioners continually choose to open meetings with a Christian prayer and by doing so they are exposing the county to the same kinds of lawsuits fought in Rowan and Forsyth counties.

“According to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals which ruled on Joyner v. Forsyth County, North Carolina and the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina, which ruled on Lund, et al. v. Rowan County, sectarian prayer is not allowed at board of commissioners meetings,” McNabb said. “In 2011, the Forsyth County case ruling made it clear that if local boards decide to open meetings with invocations, the prayers may not indicate a preference for any specific faith.

“It’s a hot topic, and we can argue who’s right and who’s wrong until the cows come home, but for now, it’s illegal, so shouldn’t be done. If these commissioners refuse to follow the rules, then let’s get some who will. They should be focusing on county business, not stirring up a religious hornet’s nest.”

The Bulletin also asked county commissioners over the weekend to respond as well as asked county attorney Jana Berg her legal opinion regarding the prayer. Ray Gasperson and Berg responded, but commissioner chair Ted Owens, vice chair Michael Gage and commissioners Keith Holbert and Tom Pack had not responded as of press time.

Gasperson said in his opinion Pastor Olson’s invocation was inappropriate.

“However, I support having invocations at the beginning of BOC (board of commissioner) meetings,” Gasperson said. “Approximately six times a year, according to the invocation schedule, I have the option to either deliver the invocation or ask a guest to do so. I always deliver my own invocation, in which I start by praying ‘Lord, we ask for your blessings upon our meeting.’ I continue by asking for wisdom in our decisions, respect for others and their opinions and conclude by praying ‘We thank you most of all that we have the great privilege to live in our beautiful county of Polk, Amen.’

“I support having our county attorney drafting an invocation guideline policy for the Polk BOC.”

Attorney Berg responded to say she is reviewing the county’s policy on legislative prayers offered in the form of invocations at the beginning of board of commissioner meetings and she intends to provide the board her legal opinion on the current policy along with any recommended changes.


Visit to see the full text of the prayer, additional comments posted to the website and the comments n this article in their entirety.