U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) says she’s concerned about Americans’ right to pray. In fact, she has just introduced legislation she says will protect this right. She calls it the “Freedom to Pray” bill.

Wait a minute. Don’t we already have the right to pray? It’s in the First Amendment, after all.

As it turns out, Landrieu’s bill has little to do with the freedom to pray and a lot to do with making sure that a group that coerces children to pray remains eligible for federal funding.

Here’s what’s going on: A few months ago, the Bossier Sherriff’s Office in Louisiana was denied $15,000 in federal funding for its “Young Marines” program. The program is designed to keep youngsters out of trouble and operates along a quasi-military model. The kids dress in camouflage and go through a type of kiddie basic training where they learn about military history and customs.

So far so good. Then we come to this passage in the program, which asserts that recruits will “develop and grow with special emphasis on the love of God and fidelity to our country.” Furthermore, participants must swear an oath to “Keep myself clean in mind by attending the church of my faith.”

The program is also rife with prayers, although planners insist they are “voluntary.” But people always say that in cases like this. The prayers are never really voluntary. You try being the one kid in the room who doesn’t want to take part.

It’s pretty obvious that this is a religious program. Children from non-theistic families and probably some others as well wouldn’t feel comfortable taking part. An arm of the government, such as a sheriff’s office, should not support a program like this, and the federal government certainly should not fund it.

Bossier Sheriff Julian Whittington isn’t doing himself any favors. At a July 4 rally, Whittington (who was joined by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and country singer Lee Greenwood) told the crowd, “We are a Christian nation based on Christian ideals, and the very idea of the mention of God or voluntary prayer is somehow prohibited and offensive is just as upsetting to them as it is to me.”

Yeah, I sure trust this guy to run the program in a way that will respect the rights of all the children taking part.

A local blogger, Randall T. Hayes, has more here. Be sure to read his report because it’s very eye-opening and contains a lot of good links.

Landrieu weighed in last week with a press release bemoaning the fact that the program was denied tax aid “because of voluntary prayer and the mention of God in the program.” Her proposed legislation would make it illegal to “revoke or withhold Federal financial assistance that would otherwise be provided to any recipient of such assistance on the basis of religious activities that are conducted voluntarily and initiated by participants in a program or activity carried out by such recipient.”

In other words, organizations could load up their activities with prayer, Bible reading and other sectarian activities and still get taxpayer funding as long as they find a way to pretend that it’s all “voluntary.”

Not only is this proposal offensive, it’s also unnecessary. The Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnership has been grappling with the question of religious activities in taxpayer-funded programs. Americans United is not fond of everything that office does, but it has at least made an effort to protect people from being forced to take part in religious worship as a condition of receiving assistance. Landrieu’s proposal would wipe that all away.

If the Bossier Sheriff’s Office wants to run a program that’s open to all young people in the area and that’s free of religious bias, then let them have at it. They could apply for federal funding then. They’ve chosen instead to sponsor a program with religious indoctrination – and they want you and me to pay for it.

It doesn’t work that way. Landrieu ought to understand that and withdraw her misguided piece of legislation.