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a.shap / Flickr

This is one for the ‘you just can’t make this crap up’ file.

A few weeks ago, an employee at the National Maritime Intelligence Center (NMIC) in Suitland, Maryland contacted the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), saying that they were very disturbed when they saw that a large Bible quote prominently was displayed in a corridor at this facility.

The NMIC employee couldn’t send us a photo of this Bible quote because it is in a secure area where no cameras or cell phones are permitted, but described it to us as being so large that it is completely impossible for anyone walking down this corridor to avoid having to look at it — four inch tall metal letters spanning an eight foot wide area over a doorframe, saying:

“I am carrying on a great project and cannot go down. Nehemiah 6:3 (NIV)”

Like so many of our service members and employees at military installations — including many Christians — this NMIC employee does not want to be made to feel like their military mission is a religious mission, which is exactly what the display of Bible quotes like this in their military workplaces do.

So, MRFF did what we usually in cases like this, which is first for MRFF’s founder and president, Mikey Weinstein, to contact the commander of the installation and make them aware that we have received a complaint about the display, and what the problem with it is. In many cases, this is all it takes. The commander realizes that the display is inappropriate and understands why it would bother some of the people in their command, and, depending on what type of display it is, takes some action to either remove it, move it to a more appropriate location such as a chapel, or alter it in some way that would be acceptable to everyone.

In other cases, however, the commander will have a public affairs officer or a JAG respond with some justification for why they are going to allow the religious display to remain. And this was the type of response we received regarding this Bible quote display at the NMIC.

The response came from a JAG, who, after speaking to Mikey Weinstein (who is also a former JAG), sent an email with a lengthy legal justification of why, in his opinion, this religious display is permissible.

The gist of this JAG’s lengthy legal justification was that displaying a religious item at a government facility is permissible as long as it is part of a larger non-religious display, and the inclusion of the religious item has a secular purpose.

In the case of this Nehemiah quote, the secular purpose that this JAG used to justify its display was that it was a Bible verse that an Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) employee who was killed in the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon kept posted on her bedroom dresser mirror, and that to the left of the doorframe that this large Bible verse spans is a portrait on this ONI employee who lost her life on 9/11, with accompanying text that ends by saying:

“This quotation from Nehemiah 6:13 (NIV) commemorates her dedication to the ONI mission and serves as a reminder to all that one’s day-to-day sacrifices and dedication to duty makes a significant contribution to the ONI mission and security of our nation.”

Where is the secular purpose in this? How does saying that this individual’s personal religious beliefs “serves as a reminder to all” that their sacrifices and dedication to duty make a significant contribution to their military mission. It doesn’t, of course. While this religious quote might have served that purpose for that individual, telling all service members and employees at this military facility this this religious quote should serve that same purpose for them is a promotion of religion, which is the exact opposite of serving a secular purpose.

As part of his further claims that this Bible quote is part of a larger, secular display, the JAG also pointed out that there is another quote, displayed in equally large lettering, similarly positioned over the next doorframe in this corridor. That quote is:

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, and become more, you are a leader.”

What struck me when I read the JAG’s description of the display of this other quote was that, unlike the religious quote, which includes the attribution to the Bible — and even the specific version of the Bible — this other quote includes no similar attribution.

The reason that the lack of an attribution for this other quote jumped out at me was that the NMIC employee who contacted us about the Bible quote had told us that had it not been for the attribution to the Bible being included with that quote, they wouldn’t have even realized that it came from the Bible. The quote itself isn’t inherently religious, so without pointing out that it came from the Bible, it would merely be seen as a motivational quote that could have come from anywhere. So there might be a simple solution — leave the quote, but just remove the “Nehemiah 6:3 (NIV)” attribution.

The next best thing, if they refused to remove the attribution from the Bible quote, would be to add an attribution to the other quote. That way, the two quotes would be displayed in an equal manner, and at least get rid of the perception that the Office of Naval Intelligence is sending the message that it is highly significant for everybody to know that the words of the one quote come from the Bible, but completely unimportant to know who that other, non-religious quote came from.

So, what the hell does any of this have to do with Dolly Parton?

Well, a quick Google search of the other quote returned whole bunch of hits attributing it to John Quincy Adams. Although the wording as displayed at the NMIC and in the hits I was seeing in my search seemed too modern-sounding for a  John Quincy Adams quote, I assumed that it must be a modernized version of something he said. So, we asked the NMIC why they didn’t have an attribution to Adams included along with that quote. Their answer was not at all what we expected. They said that they originally did have the quote attributed to Adams, but had removed the attribution at some point because someone had said they thought the quote came from Dolly Parton!

So, after I got over a bit of a WTF moment, I did a real search of John Quincy Adams’s writings to see if I could find anything he had written that was close enough to this quote for it to be a modernized version of a real quote from him, still thinking that there must be some reason that it’s attributed to him in so many books and other places. But my search turned up nothing from John Quincy Adams that was even close.

But what a broader search for the source of this quote did turn up was that, sure as sh*t, it really did come from Dolly Parton! Although the wording of the version at the NMIC isn’t exact, there was no question about it. Dolly Parton was quoted in a 1997 book as saying:

“If your actions create a legacy that inspires others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, then, you are an excellent leader.”

So, the quote should obviously be attributed to Dolly Parton.

But the next email from the JAG said that what the admiral who commands this facility had approved was putting back the attribution to John Quincy Adams — the attribution that had been removed when someone said they thought the quote came from Dolly Parton — with only some kind of note to the side of the doorframe “noting the disputed nature of the authorship.”

But at this point there was no longer any “dispute” over the “nature of the authorship.” There was now no doubt whatsoever that this quote came from Dolly Parton!

So, we sent another email to the JAG, making this very clear:

“There may be a bit of a misunderstanding here. It is no longer open to debate whether or not this is a John Quincy Adams quote. It is ABSOLUTELY NOT a John Quincy Adams quote.

“It is absolutely a Dolly Parton quote, and has nothing whatsoever to do with John Quincy Adams.

“It should NOT be attributed to John Quincy Adams at all, with a reference to Dolly Parton or not. It should be attributed to Dolly Parton and nobody but Dolly Parton.”

The next morning, we received the following response from the JAG:

“We’ll make sure the quote is properly attributed to Dolly Parton.”

So now, in addition to having had a plane named for her by the 134th Air Refueling Wing of the Air National Guard in her home state of Tennessee, complete with her image painted on the plane’s nose, Dolly Parton will also have the honor of having her name emblazoned over a doorframe in a corridor in the National Maritime Intelligence Center.

While the preferable solution would have been to remove the attribution from the Bible quote, at least now the message to people walking down this corridor that the Office of Naval Intelligence is telling them that the Bible is the only source from which they should draw their inspiration is somewhat lessened, and the quote they see as they pass that next doorframe is attributed to its rightful source — Dolly Parton.

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