Thursday, July 6, 2017

Hobby Lobby Owners Busted for Stolen Artifacts

The owners of Hobby Lobby, the chain of craft stores best known for arguing that as a corporation it should share the religious beliefs of said owners, have been busted for buying stolen Iraqi artifacts. The Green family, who own the Hobby Lobby chain, are avid collectors of ancient artifacts, in addition to being evangelical Christians who think contraception is icky. The case concerns more than 3,400 objects, which were smuggled into the United States with false labels to various store locations. The family has offered the weak defense that they were "unfamiliar" with buying such artifacts and trusted the wrong people, which is laughable given the obvious effort they went to in evading customs and so forth.

Under any circumstances, this case would be wild: It involves thousands of ancient artifacts that seem to have been stolen from Iraq, where the pillaging of antiquities has been rampant. The longstanding trade in antiquities of dubious provenance has become an especially sensitive topic in recent years, and a target of increased law-enforcement scrutiny: ISIS has made some untold millions—or billions—by selling ancient goods. While nothing in the case indicates that these objects were associated with any terrorist group, the very nature of smuggled goods means their provenance is muddy.

But the case really matters because of who’s involved. The members of the Green family, which owns the Hobby Lobby chain, are committed evangelical Christians who are probably most famous for their participation in a 2014 Supreme Court case, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, which helped dismantle certain birth-control-coverage requirements of the Affordable Care Act. The Greens are big collectors of ancient antiquities; they’re also the primary visionaries and contributors behind the Museum of the Bible opening in Washington, D.C., this fall. Steve Green is the chairman of the board. The family’s famous name, now tied to a story of dealer intrigue and black markets, is likely to bring even further scrutiny and attention as they prepare to open their museum.

Law-enforcement officials report that in 2010, Hobby Lobby’s president, Steve Green, visited the United Arab Emirates with an antiquities consultant to inspect more than 5,548 artifacts. The objects—which were precious and collectively worth millions of dollars—“were displayed informally,” the complaint stated, “spread on the floor, arranged in layers on a coffee table, and packed loosely in cardboard boxes, in many instances with little or no protective material between them.” They included cuneiform tablets, which display writing used in ancient Mesopotamia, and clay bullae, or balls of clay printed with ancient seals. Two Israeli dealers and one dealer from the UAE were present; the objects allegedly belonged to the family of a third Israeli dealer. One of the Israeli dealers sent Hobby Lobby a statement of provenance, claiming that the objects were legally acquired through purchases made in the 1960s. It also named a custodian who purportedly, in the 1970s, took care of the objects while they were being stored in the United States.

But that person never actually stored anything for the third Israeli dealer, the complaint alleges, and Hobby Lobby never contacted the custodian. The company went forward with the sale, even though it had retained an antiquities expert who cautioned against the purchase. “I would regard the acquisition of any artifact likely from Iraq … as carrying considerable risk,” that expert wrote in a memorandum shared with the company’s in-house counsel, according to the complaint. “An estimated 200-500,000 objects have been looted from archaeological sites in Iraq since the early 1990s; particularly popular on the market and likely to have been looted are cylinder seals, cuneiform tablets.” Cultural objects looted from Iraq since 1990 are protected by special import restrictions that carry criminal penalties and large fines, the expert added.

That brings up the following argument. Granted, I doubt it will hold much water with the Supreme Court, but hear me out. In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, the Supreme Court established that closely held private corporations share the sincerely held religious beliefs of their owners. Since the owners of Hobby Lobby are totally down with theft, which is prohibited by the Ten Commandments, it means one of two things. Either (A) their Christian beliefs are not sincerely held, or (B) they practice a deviant form of Christianity in which theft is okay.

Since the corporation is now legally defined as holding the same religious beliefs as its owners, we can say that the following is true. In the case of (A), Hobby Lobby should not be entitled to any relief from the contraception mandate under Obamacare because those beliefs are not sincerely held. In the case of (B), Hobby Lobby must forfeit its ability to fire or penalize all employees who steal from its stores, under penalty of falling back under (A) and losing its religious exemption. (B) is clearly impractical, so (A) it has to be.

I may not be a lawyer, but that argument is logically sound. If the owners of a company engage in activity that demonstrates their religious beliefs are not sincerely held, it seems to me they should lose any exemption they were previously given. It also demonstrates what an absolute clusterfuck it is to legally define corporations as having religious beliefs. But it seems to me that since Hobby Lobby made this bed, somebody really should force them to lie in it.

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1 comment:

Scott Stenwick said...

And I just want to emphasize what a good idea I think it is to allow employees to sue any business claiming one of these dumb religious exemptions over the sincerity of the owner's, and by definition the corporation's, religious beliefs. If the suit succeeds, the business loses the exemption.

So you could apply for a religious exemption, but the minute you do anything that could be construed as not following your religious beliefs, you have to prove that those beliefs are sincere in court. It would be like how the anti-abortion folks try to make abortion so inconvenient that even though it's legal, not many people can actually get one.

It seems to me that somebody should do the same with corporations trying to claim that they have "sincere religious beliefs."