BOSSIER PARISH, LA (KSLA) - U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu has introduced the Freedom to Pray Act in response to claims that the U.S. Department of Justice withheld funding from a Bossier Sheriff's Office youth program over prayer.
Bossier Sheriff Julian Whittington has vowed to continue the program without the federal funding, a total of $30,000 for both the Young Marines and the similar Youth Diversion Program, rather than sign off on a promise to halt voluntary prayer and the mention of God.
For its part, the Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs has said that the OJP "never defunded the Bossier Parish Sheriff's Office's Youth Diversion Program or Young Marines Program and does not make funding determinations for these subgrantees." Instead, a spokesman for the OJP told KSLA News 12 in a statement that the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement (LCLE), the state administering agency, is responsible for "ensuring its subgrantees are in compliance with grant requirements, and for determining whether the Bossier Parish Sheriff's Office receives funding. OJP is coordinating with its grantee, the LCLE, to ensure all OJP funding complies with grant requirements and federal civil rights laws and regulations."
The Bossier Sheriff's Office contends that the request to remove "inherently religious activity" from the program came from the Department of Justice, through the LCLE.
Landrieu says the Freedom to Pray Act would prohibit the federal government from withholding or revoking funds to programs whose participants engage in voluntary religious activities.
In a statement released Thursday morning, Sen. Landrieu says, "This is clearly a serious overreach by the Department of Justice and I intend to do something about it. These kids are working to improve themselves and their communities; they deserve support, not unnecessary hurdles. To fix this problem, the Freedom to Pray Act will prohibit the federal government from withholding funds simply because participants are voluntarily praying. It's legal, it's constitutional and it should not be singled out by the Justice Department," Sen. Landrieu said. "The DOJ has plenty of problems to worry about – it should focus more on them and not a program that is doing good work for kids in our community."
Several organizations and churches have donated money to the Bossier Sheriff's Office in support of the Young Marines and youth diversion programs, raising about $20,000. A special fund has been set up to accept to donations.
A few hundred people showed up for a rally at the Bossier Sheriff's Office Viking Drive Substation on the 4th of July, and hundreds have signed a petition in support of what has become known as the "In God We Trust Campaign."
The Bossier Sheriff's Office sponsors and administers the local chapter of the Young Marines, a youth education and service program for boys and girls age 8 through completion of high school. The program is provided free of charge to participants. According to information posted on the sheriff's office web site, "The Young Marines promotes the mental, moral and physical development of its young recruits." It's also designed to help at-risk youth develop goals of academic success.
Those wishing to donate can contact the Bossier Sheriff's Office at 318-965-3411 or write to Bossier Sheriff's Office, ATTN: Young Marines/Youth Diversion, P.O. Box 850, Benton, LA 71006.