Military Should Rein In Baptizing Chaplain In Iraq, Americans United Urges

U.S. military officials should order a chaplain in Iraq to stop offering soldiers a cool dip in the baptismal pool and other treats in exchange for religious commitments, Americans United advised Army officials last month.

Americans United has asked the Army to rein in the activities of Chaplain Josh Llano at Camp Bushmaster in Iraq. On April 4, the Miami Herald reported that Llano bragged about enticing soldiers to become baptized by offering them access to clean water in his baptismal font.

 "It's simple," Llano said. "They want water. I have it, as long as they agree to get baptized. "

 The newspaper reported that before going through the hour-long baptismal service, the soldiers must agree to listen to a 90-minute sermon by Llano, who calls himself a "Southern Baptist evangelist." Llano admitted that some of the soldiers in the hot Iraqi desert might just want the opportunity to take a bath but added, "Regardless of their motives, I get the chance to take them closer to the Lord."

 Llano also added that if portable showers are installed in the area, he plans to entice soldiers with scarce fruit and juice boxes.

 "Chaplain Llano's actions are unconstitutional and unacceptable," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "Our soldiers in Iraq have suffered enough hardships without having religious coercion piled on. It's time for Llano to be shipped back home."

 In an April 9 letter to Army officials, AU Legal Director Ayesha Khan and Litigation Counsel Ilana R. Fisher asked that Llano immediately be told to cease and desist.

 The AU legal team noted that a chaplain is supposed to provide a variety of religious services to soldiers at their request, not engage in proselytism.

"Especially at this time, it is imperative to be sensitive to the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of all our soldiers regardless of faith," observes the letter. "In fact, that is one of the requirements of the job description of an army chaplain. According to the U.S. Army Chaplain Corps, a chaplain is required to be '[s]ensitive to religious pluralism and able to provide for the free exercise of religion by all military personnel, their family members and civilians who work for the Army.' Chaplain Llano's actions do not exemplify this commitment to religious pluralism and are therefore not in the best interest of our troops."

The Southern Baptist Convention also distanced itself from Llano's behavior. The denomination's North American Mission Board issued a statement April 9 saying it was "very disturbed" by the report.

Army officials later said they investigated the matter and disputed the Herald's account. A statement issued by the Army's Office of the Chief of Public Affairs said Llano does not recall telling the reporter that he would give soldiers access to water only if they agreed to go through a baptism.

"I am confident that Chaplain (Josh) Llano does not, has not and will
not use coercion in the exercise of his official responsibilities," said Chaplain (Col.) Al Buckner, director of operations at the Army's chief of chaplains office at the Pentagon.

The Religion News Service reported that Mark Seibel, managing editor of the Miami Herald, defended the original story by Meg Laughlin, a Herald reporter who is covering the war in Iraq for the newspaper.