People have the right to their own opinion; however, title and authority are relevant to the implications and repercussions for going public about those opinions.
Gen. Pace is not some guy hanging around on the corner. He is the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a four-star general officer. All people who serve our nation in the military swear to defend the Constitution and to follow lawful orders. People in the armed forces do not enjoy the freedoms of civilians; they serve under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). For example, it is a violation of the UCMJ for an active-duty member of the military to "speak before a partisan political gathering of any kind for promoting a partisan political party or candidate."
I'm pointing this out to show the statutory limits placed on service people and the intent of the law that our military not influence politics. Gen. Pace must adhere to the current policy of "don't ask, don't tell" implemented by President Clinton. The power of an opinion expressed by a person who literally can determine life and death for other people has exceptional leverage.
We can't view Gen. Pace's comments in abstract. Our current president has used religion to polarize America. You can see that from the vehement, ugly, homophobic, hateful (in some cases, gleefully hateful) e-mail we have duly published on this web site. These are not our normal readersâ€"practically none of them are subscribers. However, the haters are organized and they've been whipped up. From gay marriage to Islamo-fascists, this administration has mixed a potent brew of hate speech to create an "us vs. them" atmosphere. Unfortunately for Gen. Pace, religion is now a hot-button subject that has political implications. Senior active-duty military officers publicly declaring religious opinions do so with the force of the authority of their rank, and in my opinion, considering the nature of military life and our current societal environment, it is not appropriate.
It is also relevant to keep in mind that the Constitution that service people swear to defend guarantees us freedom from a state religion. Here are the preamble to the Constitution and the First Amendment:
(Preamble) "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."
(Amendment One) "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
There is no mention of God in the Constitution; it prescribes no national religion. One reason for our revolution was to escape the oppression of a state religion.
The Constitution protects the natural rights of human beings as described in the Declaration of Independence. The founders of our country felt that the government does not give you rights; they felt that every person is born with those rights, regardless of their orientation, the status of their documentation or on what part of the planet they live. It was absolutely revolutionary at the time to establish a country whose primary responsibility was to protect human rights. We have not been able to perfectly apply rights; for example, women were not allowed to vote until 1920 and although people like Washington and Franklin thought slavery should be abolished at the founding of our country, they did not carry the argument and the protection of our Constitution was imperfectly applied. But the process of justice evolved and improved the protection of our freedoms over time through amendments to our Constitution.
The protection of the Constitution is absolute. For example, a majority of citizens in a particular state may wish to re-enslave black people, but the Constitution would prevent that. You will note (and the courts have noted) that the pledge of allegiance is not proscribed in the Constitution.
An observation: When I was on active duty, I knew several gay people on active duty, including two pilots (I was a helicopter pilot in the Navy). One of the gay pilots I knew was the best pilot in the squadron. If I were in trouble, that was the person I would hope to see in the cockpit. I also know a gay former Marine. Everyone who serves knows that there are gay people in the military.
A note to heterosexual readers: Unless you're living in Ted Kaczynski's old cabin, you know a gay person. If you disagree with me, think about this: The gay people you know aren't comfortable enough around you to be themselves.