The CEO of Hobby Lobby has once again found himself in the middle of a controversy, but this time, it’s not because he’s trying to take birth control away from his female employees. Instead, it’s because of what the company tried, and failed, to take away from the people of Iraq. (Seriously. Stay with us here.)
On July 5, after the better part of a decade’s worth of legal battles, Hobby Lobby agreed to pay a $3 million fine and return over 5,500 ancient artifacts that dealers smuggled out of Iraq by way of Israel and the United Arab Emirates. Prosecutors claim that CEO Steve Green disguised the goods in shipments labeled as “tile samples” and omitted essential documentation to avoid detection, and that he ignored repeated warnings from an expert that due to the ongoing conflicts in Iraq, the artifacts were likely the product of an archaeological dig being looted and therefore could carry a heavy penalty. Not mentioned, though very relevant, is the fact that ISIS has been profiting hugely from the looted antiquities trade and the company could be effectively funding ISIS militant activity. Hobby Lobby insists it was unaware of the dangers of the transaction, saying in a statement that it “did not fully appreciate the complexities of the acquisitions process” and put too much faith in the middlemen involved in the process. Sure.
As if that weren’t unbelievable enough, Green has also used religion has part of his defense for plundering the priceless cuneiform tablets. Green, who began purchasing Iraqi relics for his Washington DC-based Museum of the Bible in 2010, said in a July 5 statement that he did so because “developing a collection of historically and religiously important books and artifacts about the Bible is consistent with the company’s mission and passion for the Bible.”
It’s a deflection which is perfectly in line with previous efforts that the company has made to wriggle out of doing the right thing, despite positioning itself as a religious and moral leader in the business world. Hobby Lobby was founded in the 1970s by Steve Green’s father, David, with a very clear set of evangelical Christian values at the core of its mission. While these values initially took the form of policies such as being closed on Sundays for worship and paying well above minimum wage, in recent years, Hobby Lobby has put religiosity in the forefront of its entire public-facing persona.
In 2012, Green very publicly declined to comply with a part of the Obamacare mandate that required companies to pay for certain forms of contraception for their female employees, risking millions in fines in a cost-cutting measure done on religious grounds. The resulting Supreme Court case was a win for Hobby Lobby but a loss for women across America: it was a huge step back for women’s reproductive rights, enabling certain employers to be exempt from having to pay for their gender-based healthcare needs based on the religion of their ownership. It wasn’t just women who were affected by the suit, either. LGBTQ rights were also put in jeopardy as it meant that employers could claim exemption from liability in discrimination cases, and in 2014 the Hobby Lobby decision was used to determine that the firing of a transgender woman was not unconstitutional because it went against the employer’s religious beliefs. Hobby Lobby would go on to be sued for the same sort of discrimination against a transgender employee after denying her access to the gendered bathroom of her choice.
Against this backdrop, it should come as no surprise that Hobby Lobby’s owner believed that the company could once again use religion and pious intent to justify and try to play down its actions. While it doesn’t fix the damage the company has done to society, it is a win for the justice system that it’ll now have to pay for its callous actions. Too bad it had to get to the point where the chain of retail stores was tangentially bankrolling ISIS for the theft of priceless artifacts from a war-torn country for the court to assert that the law does, in fact, extend beyond religious considerations for Hobby Lobby and Steve Green. But at the end of the day, it comes down to one basic time-worn fact: what goes around comes around, eventually.