Fed funds denial results in Free to Pray Act

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Landrieu, Mary-040309-18442- 0003The uproar caused by the denial of funds to the Bossier Sheriff’s Young Marines program for prayer and mention of God has resulted in U.S. Senator Mary L. Landrieu, D-La., introducing legislation.

Landrieu unveiled the Freedom to Pray Act on Thursday, which will prohibit the federal government from withholding or revoking funds to programs whose participants engage in voluntary religious activities.

“I wish it wasn’t necessary, but evidently we’ve got a problem to work out. I do believe it’s constitutional and courts have ruled on this. It is a shame that we need a piece of legislation,” she said.

The Freedom to Pray Act would allow the Young Marines Program in Bossier City – and other programs in similar situations – to conduct voluntary religious activities without fear of losing their federal funding.

“I think (the bill) will get Democratic and Republican support. This will apply to all federal programs,” Landrieu said. “It should not be necessary to clear this up because it’s clear in the constitution now.”

Landrieu has been working on this issue for a year after she learned from a constituent email that the Young Marines Program might lose federal funds from the Department of Justice (DOJ) because of voluntary prayer and the mention of God in the program’s oath.

“This program is in line with values of the Marines and I think that needs to be considered,” said Landrieu. “In my bill, we’ve made it clear that it is not promoting a specific faith. While (the pledge) is close to the line, it’s an important line to clarify.”

“I would like to thank all national, state and local elected officials who have vowed to restore funding of our very successful Young Marines program that has been denied a federal grant by the Department of Justice because of the mention of God and voluntary prayer,” said Sheriff Julian Whittington. “I became aware (Thursday) of the act proposed by Sen. Mary Landrieu to resolve the problem so that the Young Marines program can continue to receive federal funding, and I’m appreciative of any help we can get. I’m also thankful for Congressman John Fleming’s commitment to this issue with his support and nearly 3,000 others at our ‘In God We Trust’ rally on Independence Day, as well as the support of Congressman Bill Cassidy who has taken a personal interest in this matter.”

Since being made aware of the situation, Landrieu and her staff have been in frequent contact with local officials and senior DOJ leadership to try and resolve this problem, so that the program can continue to receive federal funding and serve the community.

Landrieu said she has “gone in circles” with the department and defined the DOJ’s withholding funds as a “serious overreach.”

“These kids are working to improve themselves and their communities — they deserve support, not unnecessary hurdles,” 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.”

In June 2013, as part of a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on the DOJ budget, Sen. Landrieu requested a written response from the Justice Department as to why the program was singled out.

Her questions asked if voluntary prayer or a moment of silence during a youth program renders the program ineligible for funding and a description of the department’s process for determining what constitutes an inherently religious activity; and what steps are taken to ensure that communication between the Department and the state agencies truly reflect the Department’s regulations and do not result in overly burdensome scrutiny?

The Young Marines Program in Bossier has been working in the community since December 2002 and has served approximately 1,000 participants.

Recruits learn military history, close order drills and physical fitness, among other important life skills. The program promotes teambuilding and a sense of community among the recruits, and provides caring adult mentors who are committed to providing them with a safe place to develop and grow with special emphasis on the love of God and fidelity to our country.

“The Sheriff is absolutely right on this,” said Landrieu. “I want to thank him for his stand.”