As a former military commander both at home and deployed in war, I understand firsthand the important role free exercise of religion has in the lives of so many of our service members. For multitudes of our nation's defenders, the practice of religious faith is foundational to life itself. In a combat setting, I have seen and experienced the hope a military chaplain's religious message and prayers bring to a unit mourning the loss of a fallen hero and comrade. I know religious community, worship opportunities, prayer and access to pastoral care are key to the resilience of our war fighters and directly affects their capability to carry out the mission bestowed upon them by their country. That is why I am so disturbed and appalled at what appears to be an increasing effort to restrict the free exercise of religion within the military and completely secularize the public square.
The situation has become so serious last week that Republican Sens. Mike Lee, Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham felt compelled to send a letter to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel imploring him to ensure that our military members' freedom to express religious beliefs be protected. They did this in response to recent reports that one or more of the armed services may be considering changing regulations to severely restrict that right.
Even a cursory glance at American history reveals that America's Founders never intended a purely secular government. In fact, the very first official act of the American government was a religious one: On July 9, 1776, the Continental Congress established prayer as a daily part of the new nation. That same day, the Continental Congress authorized the Continental Army to provide chaplains for their soldiers, and Gen. George Washington issued the order to appoint chaplains to every regiment.
Nevertheless, politicians and judges constantly misapply the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment in an effort to rid the public square of religious references. Did our forefathers really intend to make an invocation of God before supper roll call at Virginia Military Institute unconstitutional? Is an Air Force commander announcing a base chapel program the same thing as the government establishing a religion? Who better to interpret the Constitution than those who wrote it and passed it into law?
It was Benjamin Franklin, the senior delegate at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, who called for prayer when the delegates were in such a bitter debate that some were leaving the convention. He was also the one who suggested the seal for the United States should be religious: "Moses lifting up his staff, and dividing the Red Sea, and pharaoh in his chariot overwhelmed by the waters. This motto, 'Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.'"
George Washington, who presided over the Constitutional Convention, issued a National Day of Thanksgiving Proclamation eight days after Congress passed the First Amendment, writing, "It is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor." Nevertheless, a Colorado court ruled a National Day of Prayer unconstitutional last year. In his Farewell Speech on Sept. 19, 1796, President Washington said, "Of all the dispositions and habits that lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of men and citizens a volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity." Washington not only appeared to endorse religion generally, he actually endorsed it in both the private and public arena.
Military members take an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Many military members bind their oath religiously, with the words "so help me God." Politicians and judges take a similar oath. Yet some elected and appointed officials purposefully subvert the Constitution by simply reinterpreting it differently than its original meaning and intent. This is both illegal and immoral. No individual, group or party has the power to change the meaning of the words written by our nation's Founders. Article Five of the Constitution outlines the legal and proper avenue for changing the Constitution: by an amendment passing by two-thirds majority in both houses of Congress (or by two-thirds of the states calling for a Constitutional Convention) and ratification of the amendment by 75 percent of the states.
As with the First Amendment, Thomas Jefferson's phrase "separation of church and state" is misapplied and given new meaning today. Jefferson utilized the famous metaphor to reassure the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut that the First Amendment tied the hands of government from ever interfering with the affairs or decisions of churches. In the very same letter, President Jefferson writes, "I reciprocate your prayers for the protection and blessing of the common Father and Creator of man."
Did Jefferson really mean to institute a purely secular government? Three days after writing to the Danbury Baptist Association, Thomas Jefferson attended his weekly worship service on government property, in the House Chambers of the U.S. Capitol Building. The Marine Band played at the services.
As president, Jefferson signed several federal acts for the purpose of "propagating the Gospel." He gave federal funds to a religious school for Cherokees in Tennessee and more federal funds to directly support Christian missionaries to the Kaskaskia Indians. These actions took place at the federal level after the adoption of the First Amendment, by the man who wrote "separation of church and state."
The only way to purport a purely secular government today is to reinterpret the words of the founding documents in a way the Founders did not originally intend. The legal and correct way to change the Constitution is to amend, not reinterpret it. The fear of the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802 is being realized in 2013: If the government has power to grant religious freedom, the government has power to take it away. Today, "separation of church and state," is being used as a weapon to intimidate military leaders to tread lightly concerning religion or get sued or prosecuted by the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Our military members fight to guarantee our freedoms. Now it is time we stand up and fight to guarantee theirs.
Rob Maness is a retired U.S. Air Force commanding officer, combat veteran and Harvard University graduate.