U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu is pushing back against the U.S. Department of Justice in a Bossier funding dispute over the issue of religion being part of a boot camp for at-risk youth.
Landrieu is introducing the "Freedom to Pray Act" that would prohibit the federal government from withholding or revoking funds to programs whose participants engage in voluntary religious activities.
Bossier Parish Sheriff Julian Whittington withdrew federal funding applications after persistent DOJ questions about religious components of the Young Marine program. God is mentioned in a daily pledge but Bossier officials have said there is no mandatory participation in any prayer that is offered.
Whittington ultimately withdrew his funding application.
"This is clearly a serious overreach by the Department of Justice and I intend to do something about it,'' Landrieu said in a written statement. "These kids are working to improve themselves and their communities; they deserve support, not unnecessary hurdles."
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."
According to records requested by KTBS, the grant money for the Young Marines program was received by Bossier Parish for a decade ranging from 2002-2012. In 2012, the Department of Justice audited the Young Marine program and the wrap up letter from that visit expressed concerns about Young Marines being boot camp based and that research showed its ineffectiveness. In the course of providing brochures and information about the Young Marines program, the DOJ office of Civil Rights noticed the mention of God in the Young Marines program. While at first the DOJ seemed to say that this aspect of the program was not a problem, reviewers then requested assurances that the Young Marines program does not violate Federal Regulations requiring religious activities to be voluntary and separate from DOJ funded programs.
The responses from Bossier Parish attempted to assure the government that their activities were not in violation of Federal Regulation continued to prompt follow up questions from the feds, all passed on through Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement (LCLE) to Bossier.
In 2013, Bossier Parish applied for another grant from LCLE. In a response letter to Bossier Parish, LCLE asked Bossier to "please remove the reference to ‘love of God'" from their grant application for 2013 and also to remember that the Office of Civil Rights recommends that prayer be separate and voluntary from the program.
The Federal Attorney for the Office of Civil Rights said that the new 2013 grant request cannot be issued until a letter from the sheriff's office confirms that "any prayer, even if voluntary, needs to be separate in time or location" and states that the previous Young Marines program grants "contained impermissible use of DOJ funding on prayer." According to records, the DOJ never pulled its funding for the Bossier Parish programs.
On March 11, 2013, Bossier Parish withdrew its 2013 grant application. The withdrawal of the grant application infuriated Bossier residents and those affected by the Young Marines program. Residents rallied at the Bossier Parish Sheriff's Office substation on July 4th for an "In God We Trust" rally where over $20,000 in monetary donations were received for the program and over 1,000 signatures were marked on a petition. At the "In God We Trust" rally on July 4th, Sheriff Whittington told KTBS 3 News that "we are a Christian nation based on Christian ideals".
The Federal Regulations are clear in that any group that gets money from the DOJ must have all religious activities be both voluntary and separate. Furthermore, any petitions or efforts to restore funding are at a standstill unless the Federal Regulations are changed.
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