Hobby Lobby leadership has agreed to pay millions in fines to the US federal government after being found to have illegally smuggled religious artifacts from the Middle East. According to the federal accusation, the company or associates related to the company engaged in “intentionally mislabeling” Iraqi religious artifacts for import into the United States.
Hobby Lobby’s owners are devout Christians who, according to various media reports, share a strong and enduring interest in “biblical” artifacts. They began collecting historical items back in 2009 with the intention of eventually opening a museum of Middle Eastern religious history, which is being called “Museum of the Bible” in the press.
Hobby Lobby President Steve Green recently addressed the illegal imports as well as the fine. “(Hobby Lobby officials) should have exercised more oversight and carefully questioned how the acquisitions were handled…”
This statement does not appear to admit any guilt in the case, and it doesn’t appear that Green or the company is contrite for “mislabeling” the artifacts being shipped. Prosecutors didn’t buy the excuses offered by the company, saying the order the company purchased was “fraught with red flags” including labels misidentifying the artifacts as “ceramic tiles.”
The lying labels were likely in response to tightening restrictions on imports from Iraq. Back in 1990, the US government restricted imports from that country, and, in 2004, they were banned completely. Part of this is because, in Iraqi law, any antiquities are officially the property of the national government that cannot be owned by private individuals except with the express consent of the government of Iraq.
Hobby Lobby worked with a dealer from UAE to import the artifacts to various company offices in and around Oklahoma City. Not only were the shipments mislabeled, the country of origin information was incorrectly attributed to Turkey. Then, when working with another dealer, Hobby Lobby received another series of shipments with the country of origin mislabeled as Israel.
In addition to the fine, Hobby Lobby agreed to forfeit all of the artifacts associated with those shipments, which included thousands of tablets containing cuneiform inscriptions. Hobby Lobby said they would change their import policies to keep this from happening again. Green opined: “Our passion for the Bible continues, and we will do all we can to support the efforts to conserve items that will help illuminate and enhance our understanding…”
From a public relations perspective, the fine and, really, this entire situation is a black mark on the record of a company that set itself up as a moral and ethical paragon. This self-appointed paragon lable came when the company tried to argue against the Affordable Care Act’s provision of providing birth control through voluntary employee insurance policies. Millions of evangelical and Catholic Christians lined up behind Hobby Lobby, turning the brand into a religious conservative icon and talking point.
Will this episode damage that reputation? Among like-minded consumers, probably not, but it should give the opposition some low hanging fruit to use for potshots in the press.