Landrieu introduced the Freedom to Pray act Thursday. The Louisiana Democrat has been working on it for a year since learning from a constituent that the Young Marines program in Bossier Parish might lose federal money “because of voluntary prayer and the mention of God in the program,” according to a news release from her office.
The Young Marines of the Marine Corps League describes itself as a youth education and service program for boys and girls from 8 years old through high school, focusing on character building, leadership and a healthy, drug-free lifestyle, according to its national website. It’s the focus of the U.S. Marine Corps’ anti-drug program, it said.
The program, run by the Bossier Parish Sheriff’s Office has served about 1,000 students, according to Landrieu. It lost about $30,000 in federal money because of the religious requirements.
“This is clearly a serious overreach by the Department of Justice and I intend to do something about it,” Landrieu said in a news release. “These kids are working to improve themselves and their communities; they deserve support, not unnecessary hurdles.”
The program’s website states that each member must agree to “Keep myself clean in mind by attending the church of my faith” and to pledge that “I shall never do anything that would bring disgrace or dishonor upon my God, my Country and its flag, my parents, myself or the Young Marines.”
Under the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of religion, those requirements put it over the line as far as receiving federal money, said Marjorie Esman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Louisiana office.
“I think that Landrieu’s Freedom to Pray bill is unnecessary, in that voluntary prayer is always allowed,” she said. “The problem with this Young Marine program is they are required to swear to God — some god — and to attend church — some church — which requires them to have one and have a faith. Which is where the problem lies, and Sen. Landrieu’s bill will not solve this problem.”
The Times of Shreveport reported that Sheriff Julian Whittington was greeted with loud applause and shouts of “Amen” when he told the 27th graduating class on June 29 that he would not remove God from the program.
Sen. David Vitter and Rep. John Fleming, both Republicans, released a statement Thursday calling the Justice Department’s action religious censorship.
“This administration knows no end to its attacks on religious freedom,” said Fleming. “The Department of Justice is trying to pull the plug on a successful youth program in Bossier Parish because students are allowed a moment of silence in which they may choose to pray before each class.”
Vitter said, “It’s deplorable that the administration is discriminating against this laudable program to help Louisiana youth just because they mention God.”
Landrieu said she asked during an Appropriations Committee budget hearing last month for a written response from the Justice Department about why the program was singled out, and whether voluntary prayer or a moment of silence would make a youth program ineligible for federal money.
“Recruits learn military history, close-order drills and physical fitness, among other important life skills,” her news release said. “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.”