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Young Marines march on

Bossier Sheriff’s Office Young Marines recruits go through PT Tuesday morning. The program is thriving despite cuts in federal funding over the program’s use of prayer and the word “God” in its pledge.

In wake of DOJ controversy, Sheriff’s program is still going strong

It’s been about a year since the Bossier Parish Sheriff’s Office was denied federal funding for its Young Marines and Youth Diversion programs, but the ones closest to them say they have continued marching to the beat of their own drum.

It wasn’t until June 2013 that the public learned the situation — the U.S. Department of Justice denied federal grant funds simply because the Young Marines obligation mentions God and they hold a voluntary prayer. Sheriff Julian Whittington was told that funding would be restored only if he signed a letter “pledging that no prayer or mention of God would be allowed” in either program.

Whittington, however, refused to sign the letter and still stands the same ground he did last year – he will not remove God or voluntary prayer from the programs.

“We have no intention of letting up on the fight,” Whittington said. “This incident has certainly brought a lot of attention to the program, but nothing really has been settled.”

Instead, Whittington said the federal government has pointed out other issues and concerns they have with the programs. One example, he shared, is that the program is often referred and misunderstood to be a boot camp.

Whittington said that’s just not the case.

“It has never been a boot camp” he said. “Most people will associate Marines with boot camp, but we don’t do boot camp. Recruits do not stay with us (overnight).”

The BSO is forging ahead with the two programs, paying for them with department funds and private donations. Whittington said the approximate cost to fund both the Young Marines and Youth Diversion programs is approximately $30,000.

To date, the BSO has received more than $100,000 in private donations.

The Bossier Sheriff’s Young Marines program is a free service to Bossier Parish youth, ages eight to 18. Recruits complete a regimen of indoctrination and training, including leadership skills, physical training, teamwork, discipline and confidence building skills in order to become Young Marines. The program also instills the Marine Corps values of honor, courage and commitment and promotes a healthy drug-free lifestyle.

Recruits also learn the Young Marines Obligation, which states, “From this day forward, I sincerely promise, I will set an example for all other youth to follow and I shall never do anything that would bring disgrace or dishonor upon God, my Country and its flag, my parents, myself or the Young Marines. These I will honor and respect in a manner that will reflect credit upon them and myself. Semper Fidelis.”

Whittington said the fight all comes down to two things — religion and freedom of speech. The BSO is planning its second annual 4th of July “In God We Trust” rally for later this summer, an event that Whittington said will be “bigger and better” than the first.

The emphasis won’t be necessarily on the Young Marines program, but instead as a public gathering to celebrate America and our first amendment rights. Whittington said he never fathomed getting the kind of response as he got from the public since this issue came to light.

His plan for the future is to stand his ground as long as it takes.

“We are going to keep it on the burner until we are successful,” Whittington said. “We don’t have the money, but they know how we feel about it. My stance won’t change.”

The 29th class of Young Marine recruits will graduate Monday, March 31, at 6 p.m. in the Viking Drive substation. The BSO Young Marines program has successfully graduated more than 1,000 juveniles since it started in 2002.

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Sean Green is managing editor of the Bossier Press-Tribune.