Tuesday, February 9, 2021

More Legal Trouble for Museum of the Bible

Whatever happened to "Thou Shalt Not Steal?" The Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC is owned by the oh-so-Christian Green family of Hobby Lobby Craft Stores fame. It also has a serious antiquities theft problem going back many years involving stolen and illegally trafficked artifacts. In the latest chapter of this entirely un-Christian saga, the museum has been forced to return over five thousand Egyptian artifacts that were illegally smuggled into the United States.

The Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC has returned some 5,000 artifacts to the Egyptian government, after years of talks between agencies including the Department of Homeland Security and the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities. The objects have been held at the Museum since its opening in 2016. Egypt has been seeking repatriation of the objects, which it says were smuggled illegally out of the country, for just as long.

The objects include funerary masks; fragments of coffins; a set of portraits of the dead; heads of stone statues; manuscripts of Christian prayers written in both Arabic and Coptic, and just Arabic; and pieces of papyrus with text in Coptic and Greek, as well as hieratic and demotic script. The pieces will be displayed in Cairo’s Coptic Museum. According to Hisham Al Laithi, who heads the country’s antiquities registration center, the objects were not taken from Egyptian warehouses or museums. Instead they were smuggled after being illegally excavated.

The Museum has been plagued by issues of suspicious and incomplete provenance and has returned thousands of artifacts to Iraq and Egypt since opening in 2017. Founder and board chairman Steve Green is also the president of Hobby Lobby craft stores, and has a personal collection valued at $30 million, which he began amassing in 2009.

In 2015, the Green family was investigated for importing looted clay tablets from Israel, which were shipped in 2011 to Oklahoma City, where Hobby Lobby is headquartered, with plans to be displayed at the museum when it opened. The shipment was labeled as “tile samples.” Despite the fact that the museum maintained that clerical and paperwork errors were to blame, Hobby Lobby returned more than 5,000 artifacts smuggled from Iraq and paid a $3 million fine.

I pointed this out last time I reported on this seemingly ongoing story, and I'll do it again today. Hobby Lobby asked for, and received from the Supreme Court, an exemption from providing health insurance policies with birth control coverage to employees on the basis of the "sincere religious beliefs" of the firm's owners - the Green family. But the Green family obviously don't adhere to those "sincere" beliefs themselves. Theft is a direct violation of one of the Ten Commandments that are fundamental to their faith.

Why should a company just get to assert that their employees should be disadvantaged because of religious beliefs that the owners don't even really hold? I'm not suggesting that they be stripped of their exemption without due process, but rather that there should be due process put in place for employees to challenge the exemption on the basis of cases just like this one. I will grant that the subjectivity of Christian theology would make this difficult to prove in a lot of situations, but theft on this scale should be a no-brainer.

Better still, how about we dispense with the notion that corporations can have religious beliefs in the first place? That's what every rational person was pushing for back when the case came up. Even hardcore "corporations are people" legal theorists have to admit that while corporations may legally be "artificial persons," they clearly are subject to all sorts of laws and regulations that actual people aren't. The idea of an "artificial person" without any coherent mind or consciousness having religious beliefs is just silly.

Political and legal musings aside, I'm glad that the Egyptian government was able to get their artifacts back. And I will say that it seems like this issue keeps coming up. Do we need to do a full audit of the Museum of the Bible? Do they have anything in their collection that was legally obtained? I would hope so, but cases like this one keep making me wonder.

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