Emily Olson, the newest city council member in Owosso, Michigan, is already making waves—and getting threatened—for trying to end the tradition of Christian prayers at meetings and refusing to stand during the Pledge of Allegiance.
Olson was just elected to one of seven seats on the Owosso City Council. She moved to the city last year, opened up a local store, began a group for progressive women (“The Fair Mavens“), and ran a successful campaign for one of the city’s four open council seats. She’s perhaps the best sort of local champion: someone who chose to live there, runs a small business, and wants to make the city more welcoming to others.
But when she sat in on a city council meeting before her election, she was surprised to see how much religion was baked into it. The meeting began with a Christian prayer and included a formal recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance. While saying the Pledge isn’t all that unusual, the default Christian invocation was a legal liability.
So after she got elected, during her first meeting on November 21, Olson proposed eliminating the prayers from the Owosso City Council agenda (21:56) and remained seated during the Pledge (0:45 mark).
… I can tell that everybody fervently applauded at the idea of keeping the prayer, and I just question: What is it that’s lost by making the room more inclusive? Where’s the harm…? No one’s—I’m certainly—I respect everybody’s religion. I just don’t know that it belongs at the outset of a government meeting. So I do wonder, in your decision, where do you find the harm in removing it?
She didn’t get a good answer to her questions.
One council member, Daniel Law, reacted by saying removing the prayer would be “exclusionary to Christians,” proving yet again that Christian Nationalists treat neutrality as oppression. He later added “This is a Christian city.” (Olson responded by pointing out how those comments merely reinforced her reason for suggesting prayer should be kept out of meetings.)
Law also said to Olson that she should respect their traditions. “When you go visit a friend’s house,” he told her, “if they ask you to take your shoes off, you do.” That analogy didn’t sit well with Olson. As she later told me, when it comes to the city council, everyone owns this house.
Mayor Robert J. Teich Jr. then noted that, in his seven years on the council, no one has ever told him “they felt excluded [by] having prayer“… which only suggests no one feels safe talking to him about their concerns. Olson even wondered when he said that, How many times have you asked?
One of the attendees even responded directly to his misguided statement, saying during the public comments portion of the meeting that she was “uncomfortable with the prayer.”
Predictably, the vote to get rid of the Christian invocations failed 5-2, with only council member Janae Fear joining Olson in wanting to remove the religious ritual (offering to replace it with a moment of silence). Teich then said, with all the cockiness of a petty dictator, that he would forbid the topic from coming up again during the two years of his term.
As for the Pledge, I’ve made an entire podcast series about its history, but just to go over the biggest concerns, the phrase “under God” pushes religion onto people who may not be religious. It falsely suggests that we have “liberty and justice for all.” It was originally written to promote anti-immigrant sentiment. And frankly, our country isn’t always one that deserves admiration.
Anyone who wants to stand for the Pledge is welcome to do so, but there’s nothing unpatriotic about remaining seated during it, whether you’re a student, teacher, or city council member. In fact, there’s a strong argument to be made that it’s extremely patriotic to remain seated because the alternative is rote recitation of a memorized script.
Neither of these things should be controversial. A city council meeting isn’t a church service and there are all kinds of reasons to protest the Pledge of Allegiance.
But this is a very, very Republican community. As you can imagine, most people flipped out as if Olson’s mild protest against religious tradition was an act of heresy.
That’s not an understatement either. One local blogger wrote Olson a letter saying he had a “vision” from God that she would be shot while leaving her business one night.
“I was given a vision, a very detailed vision,” Tom Manke wrote to Emily Olson in a letter, which he left on her council seat in a sealed envelope marked ‘private’ before Monday’s council meeting. Olson apparently did not read the letter until the meeting’s conclusion.
“My observation point in the vision was from your back parking lot,” Manke’s letter says. “It’s cold out, winter, you have a coat on and are leaving your store. Your back is to the parking lot and you are locking the door. A man, 5’10”, 50-60ish, white, neatly dressed wearing an overcoat and dress hat walks up to you from the north side. You see him — you know him — you smile, and without saying a word he shoots you. He calmly walks away and leaves in a dark-colored vehicle.”
It’s irrelevant that the letter implies the writer wouldn’t commit the act himself… partly because, according to Olson, he fits the very description of his imaginary assailant.
Olson told me she’s working with local law enforcement officials regarding how to handle this. Even if the letter writer insists this isn’t a threat, it’s hard not to think otherwise when you’re on the receiving end of it. (Based on what The Argus-Press reported, Manke is a right-wing conspiracy theorist who thinks Olson is just trying to get media coverage. The newspaper noted that, in the past, Manke told a local school board member that she would “face God’s wrath” unless she voted to sell a former middle school to a church.)
Make of that letter what you will, but given the typical response from conservative Christians when anyone challenges their hegemony, this feels all too familiar.
There was plenty of pushback beyond the threat, too. Here’s former Shiawassee County Commissioner Barb Clatterbaugh:
“I think that hit a nerve,” she said of the new council member’s actions. “She hit the Christians, the church-goers and the veterans … I don’t know how you can alienate so many people” in just one meeting.
Clatterbaugh is the sort of person who thinks kneeling during the National Anthem is an act of treason while the people promoting systemic racism are automatically patriots because they stand and say the Anthem with hands over their hearts.
At the next council meeting (this past Monday), plenty of community members also weighed in against Olson’s decision to remain seated. They have every right to do that, but their comments were the usual blend of ignorance and arrogance.
One veteran, Gary Duehring, acted like not standing for the Pledge was disrespectful to the flag and the troops… as if freedom of speech requires blind loyalty to a piece of cloth. Apparently everyone is free to have their opinions, except in this one case, when he gets to dictate their body positioning.
Other citizens demanded a recall election. Said one, “Recall should be warranted because you took an oath to upstand [?] the flag, and you mock it and throw it in our faces.”
One high school senior demanded that she “respect these men,” referring to veterans, by standing up against her wishes.
Olson publicly explained her position at the meeting and on Facebook, saying she’s not anti-American, just anti-shoving-Christianity-down-everyone’s-throats. She also told local media that about a third of the city is Christian, yet the council’s practices treat that number as if it’s 100%. She added that she’s received plenty of positive feedback from people who finally feel “seen and heard.”
During a lengthy chat with me yesterday, Olson said she was seriously hoping for the best and didn’t see this backlash coming. Olson assumed the prayers and Pledge were merely Owosso traditions that went unchallenged and that, as soon as she explained her concerns about them, her colleagues would understand and act accordingly. That obviously didn’t happen.
At this point, she doesn’t have much choice but to give up the prayer fight and simply remain seated during the Pledge. Olson told me she welcomes people in Owosso speaking out about the situation, especially if they’re uncomfortable with the prayers. Maybe hearing more voices will help some of her colleagues realize they’ve been living in a Christian bubble.
During our conversation and even in her interviews with local media outlets, it’s been interesting to see how little Olson references her own beliefs. That’s mostly because they’re irrelevant. (In case you’re wondering, she’s an atheist.) Yet her concerns represent people all over the religious spectrum. That’s no doubt true of non-Christian faiths, but it’s also true of Christians, many of whom don’t want government prayers either. In fact, the city manager told them before the meeting that a neighboring community that used to have invocations got rid of them after a pastor was elected mayor and directly called for the tradition to end because city council meetings were “not the time or place” for prayers.
But in Owosso, the prayers will continue because the Christians in charge don’t want to let them go no matter what Olson says. They would rather force their religion upon the community than admit government meetings ought to be religiously neutrality. It’s a completely irresponsible move. Unfortunately, it may not change unless Satanists or other non-Christians begin demanding invocation slots.