Lawmakers Support La. Sheriff's Decision to Keep 'God' in at-Risk Youth Programs

Correction appended

Julian Whittington, the sheriff of Bossier Parish, La., is joining forces with state senators and representatives who are contesting the recent stripping of federal grants from two local youth programs over their religious references.

The Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement reportedly stripped $30,000 worth of Department of Justice funding to the Young Marines program and its affiliated Bossier Youth Diversion program after a government representative attended an audit last year and noticed that the Young Marines group makes a pledge to God and the Bossier Youth Diversion program holds a student-led, voluntary prayer at their meetings.

Bossier Sheriff's Office, which sponsors and ministers the local Young Marines chapter, reportedly received a letter from the LCLE, at the direction of the Department of Justice's Office for Civil Rights, asking that Sheriff Whittington sign a pledge vowing to bar religious references at the youth program meetings.

According to Whittington, the letter reportedly stated that the LCLE and the Department of Justice would not be able to grant the sheriff's office its federal grant until the signed pledge was provided.

Whittington said in a letter that by that time he had had enough "bureaucratic nonsense" and made the decision to withdraw his grant request.

"We're not promoting any specific religion, this is just voluntary prayer, mention of God, how offensive and bad can that be?" Whittington questioned to local KSLA 12 news.

Instead of complying with the request, Whittington composed a letter to Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, in which he described the defunding as "persistent aggression and infringement of our religious freedoms."

He described the situation to Jindal as "appalling" and added that he will "never sign the requested letter preventing these 'inherently religious activities' from being a part of our programs."

"I think this is an area where compromise is not an option and request it be given your prompt attention," Whittington said in the letter.

"Enough is enough. This is the United States of America – and the idea that the mere mention of God or voluntary prayer is prohibited is ridiculous," Whittington added to Fox News.

According to the Bossier Sheriff's Office webpage, the purpose of the Young Marines group is to "[promote] the mental, moral and physical development of its young recruits," as well as aid at-risk youth in learning the value of discipline and academic success.

The oath of the Young Marines group, which was started in Bossier in 2002 and is sanctioned by the U.S. Marine Corps, reads: "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."

According to The Shreveport Times, the Young Marines youth program has reportedly been so successful in helping at-risk youth turn their lives around that a district court ruled it as an appropriate alternative sentence to troubled teens instead of jail time.

For those troubled teens, the sheriff's office set up the Youth Diversion Program as a branch of the Young Marines.

Local clergy and lawmakers have stood behind Whittington in his decision to keep the religious references in the youth programs and not receive federal funding.

"We want to make sure that program stays in place and I want to applaud the sheriff for taking a stand the way he did to not compromise the integrity of the program for a few grant dollars," Pastor Doyle Adams Sr. of Elizabeth Baptist Church told KTBS.

Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) additionally told Fox News that he is concerned about the defunding of the youth program.

"There is a very wide effort coming out of the administration that seeks to stamp out freedom of expressions – particularly religion and especially freedom of Christian expression," Fleming told Fox News. "They are willing to throw the youth overboard and remove the funding just in the name of making this an atheist, agnostic, secular organization."

Senator Barrow Peacock (R-Bossier City) created a senate resolution which encourages the state's congressional delegation to review the defunding with the DOJ; the resolution was passed unanimously earlier in June.

"I think it's a shame that our federal government basically has strings attached to federal funding, when it's our first amendment right to have freedom of religion in our country," Sen. Peacock told KSLA 12.

The local sheriff's department is now reportedly looking to fund the youth programs itself, and although it does not solicit donations, it has reportedly received support from the community wishing to see the youth programs continue.

Correction: Wednesday, July 3, 2013:

An article on June 26, 2013, incorrectly stated that the Department of Justice made the decision to defund the Young Marines program and the Bossier Youth Diversion program of Bossier Parish, La. An email from a spokesperson of the Office of Justice Programs, a component of the Department of Justice, clarified that the "Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement, 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."

The Office of Justice Programs works with the LCLE to ensure all Department of Justice funding complies with grant requirements and federal regulations.