When spreading the Gospel of Jesus, what sorts of peccadilloes are you permitted to get away with? Can you lie, traffic in stolen goods and line the pockets of murderers if it allows you to, say, accumulate a bunch of neat-o artifacts for a Bible museum in Washington, D.C.?
These are questions at the heart of a scandal surrounding Hobby Lobby, the giant craft retail enterprise owned by a family unabashed about their calling as Christian evangelists.
A civil settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice requires Hobby Lobby to relinquish a trove of more than 5,500 artifacts believed to have been looted from Iraq as the country fell into disarray.
Hobby Lobby’s owners paid $1.6 million for the antiquities. Now, the arts and crafts giant must pay a $3 million fine under a civil settlement announced by the U.S. Department of Justice.
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Hobby Lobby’s president, the son of the arts and craft retailer’s founder, issued a mea culpa of sorts. In a statement, Steve Green cited “regrettable mistakes” and said, “We should have exercised more oversight and carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled.”
This is weak sauce. His company’s actions cannot be honestly explained as a novice mistake. Willful ignorance, and no small amount of hubris, were more likely at play.
According to the government’s evidence, Hobby Lobby was told that the artifacts’ offering prices amounted to more than $2 million. The treasures included Assyrian and Babylonian cuneiform tablets, bricks and other items used in ancient writings and seals. A consultant told the company’s leaders that he believed the loot could be appraised as high as $11.8 million. And yet he thought the company could negotiate things down to $1.6 million.
Hmm, let’s see. Ancient artifacts coming out of a war-torn country overrun by terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State that were known to be raising operating funds by selling looted antiquities on the black market — and the stuff is on offer at an 86 percent discount. Seems legit, right?
Even a naive buyer ought to have heard the warning bells. In fact, an expert in cultural property law, hired by Hobby Lobby, did call for caution. The expert noted that many such items had likely been stolen from archaeological sites in Iraq.
Hobby Lobby’s owners never met with the artifacts’ owners. They wired the money for the pieces to seven separate personal bank accounts, according to the complaint.
Some items were shipped, marked not as what they were but rather as tile samples, to Oklahoma. That looks nothing like smuggling, no sir.
The Department of Homeland Security, through U.S. Customs and Border Protection, led the investigation. They are the folks whot insist you declare items when returning to the U.S. from foreign travel. They are also charged with the responsibility of preserving the sanctity of world treasures.
If you believe that God wants you to spread his word, or at least your interpretation of it, is dodging government regulations something you do naturally?
Perhaps Hobby Lobby’s owners were emboldened by their landmark Supreme Court victory against the government three years ago over the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act. The 5-4 decision ruled that closely held for-profit corporations can be exempt from regulations based on religious objections. The ruling was narrowly crafted but was seen by many as a major blurring of previously distinct lines between the roles of church and state.
For the past six years Hobby Lobby’s owners have been gobbling up religious artifacts, accumulating an astounding amount of property, believed to be the world’s largest privately owned collection of such items. Experts have been raising concerns, worried that the antiquities are not being properly vetted for chain of ownership. Indeed, according to the government complaint, Green brought to the United States a Bible he bought for $1 million in the United Arab Emirates and failed to declare it at customs.
Many of the treasures are for the Museum of the Bible, an eight-story building two blocks from the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The museum is backed by the Green family and will display much of the Green Collection of historical Bibles and items like those that the company must now relinquish.
The items in the federal complaint had not yet been made a part of the Museum of the Bible, which is scheduled to open in November.
Most religions teach that God doesn’t like thievery or lying. It’s also pretty safe to say he takes a dim view of those who wring pecuniary advantage out of war while cravenly casting themselves as holy.
So let Hobby Lobby’s owners reflect on what Jesus might actually counsel rich, powerful people such as them to do with their spare millions. They might end up doing some real good in this world.