A Louisiana lawman is livid over the federal government’s decision to cut off funds for two programs to help troubled young people -- all, he says, because he refused to sign a pledge to bar prayer or any mention of God at their meetings.
Julian Whittington, the sheriff of Bossier Parish, Louisiana, told Fox News that the Department of Justice Office of Civil Rights de-funded $30,000 for their Young Marines chapter as well as a youth diversion program. Federal officials objected to a voluntary student-led prayer in the department’s youth diversion program and an oath recited by the Young Marines that mentions God, according to Whittington, who blasted what he considers the government’s “aggression and infringement of our religious freedoms.”
“We were informed that these are unacceptable inherently religious activities and the Department of Justice would not be able to fund the programs if it continued,” Whittington told Fox News. “They wanted a letter from me stating that I would no longer have voluntary prayer and I would also have to remove 'God' from the Young Marine’s oath.”
The DOJ and the Office of Civil Rights are aware of the controversy but did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Fox News obtained an email written by an attorney for the DOJ’s Office of Civil Rights raised questions about references to God and church along with the phrase “love of God.” The attorney also raised questions about one of the five elements of the Young Marines Creed – “Keep myself clean in mind by attending the church of my faith.”
The attorney advised that DOJ rules prohibit “funding on inherently religious activities, such as prayer, religious instruction and proselytization.
“And any religious activities must be kept separate in time or location from DOJ-funded activities,” the attorney wrote.
The sheriff was told he would not be given any money unless he wrote a letter pledging not to pray or use the word “God.”
“I flat said, ‘It’s not going to happen,’” he said. “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.”
The sheriff said the programs have been in place for at least ten years and until now -- the prayers and the mention of God have never been an issue.
The Young Marine’s oath that the DOJ took issue with 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.”
Ironically, both the U.S. military’s commissioning oath and enlistment oath include the phrase, “So help me God.”
Whittington said he could not understand why the federal government would take issue with the oath or the prayers.
“Right here in good old Bossier Parish, Louisiana, in the United States of America -- something as basic as voluntary prayer and the mere mention of God is offensive and prohibited (by the government),” he said.
Both youth programs have been hailed as a successful way to reach at-risk young people. Since 2002, more than 1,000 young people have graduated from the program, directed by a Bossier Parish deputy who is a former U.S. Marine.
The federal money had been used to purchase uniforms and supplies for the kids. But Whittington said it’s not about the money.
“The money is not the issue,” he said. “It’s the principle of the matter. What is going on here? Who is dictating what can or can’t be said in Bossier Parish?”
The sheriff fired off a letter to La. Gov. Bobby Jindal defending his decision not to compromise.
“This is an appalling situation where someone at the Department of Justice Office of Civil Rights in Washington, D.C. could, would and did go to great lengths to prevent even the mere mention of God in any way to the youth in these programs,” he wrote.
While Jindal has not yet weighed in, Rep. John Fleming (R-LA) told Fox News he is very concerned about the de-funding.
“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 said. “They are willing to throw the youth overboard and remove the funding just in the name of making this an atheist, agnostic, secular organization.”
Fleming said his office is looking into the matter and vowed to “lock arms” with the Bossier Parish Sheriff’s Office.
“They (DOJ) don’t want anything to have any sort of religious support -- even down to prayer,” Fleming said. “It’s sad and it’s inconsistent with the intentions of the framers of the Constitution.”
The Young Marines was founded in 1958 and has more than 10,000 members in 300 chapters. The organization focuses on character-building, leadership and promotes a drug-free lifestyle.
Mike Kessler, the national executive director of Young Marines, told Fox News that he was disappointed to hear about the controversy surrounding the Bossier Parish chapter.
“I’m saddened the DOJ felt it necessary to pull whatever funding they provide because clearly when a sheriff’s office takes the kids in -- they are looking at the program as a way to help kids who might otherwise get into trouble,” he said.
Kessler said Young Marines does not promote a specific religious faith. He said he could not fathom why the DOJ would take issue with portions of their creed that mentions God and attending the church of their faith.
“That’s such a generic statement,” he said. “We’re not talking about the local Baptist church. We’re not talking about a specific religion. I don’t understand how much more generic we can be.”