OKLAHOMA CITY - Hobby Lobby, the arts-and-crafts chain whose devout Christian owners won a landmark Supreme Court ruling on religious freedom, is caught up in an antiquities-smuggling scandal that has opened the company to accusations of hypocrisy.
The Oklahoma City-based business agreed to pay a $3 million fine Wednesday over its role in what federal prosecutors said was the smuggling into the U.S. of ancient clay tablets, seals and other Iraqi archaeological objects that might have been looted from the war-torn country.
Online, many people piled on, with more than one saying things like: "I know Hobby Lobby's big on the Ten Commandments, but how about 'Thou shalt not steal'?" and "Hypocritical cretins. Preach one thing and practice another."
Hobby Lobby, whose president, Steve Green, has been collecting ancient artifacts since 2009 and is building an $800 million Bible museum in Washington, pleaded naivete in doing business with dealers in the Middle East.
"The company was new to the world of acquiring these items and did not fully appreciate the complexities of the acquisitions process," Hobby Lobby said in a statement. "This resulted in some regrettable mistakes."
Federal prosecutors described a scheme that involved lying and perhaps stealing. It included a number of middlemen and involved the use of phony or misleading invoices, shipping labels and other paperwork to slip the artifacts past U.S. customs agents, prosecutors said.
Among other things, cuneiform tablets were labeled "ceramic tiles," and items carried paperwork that said they came from Turkey or Israel. Also, artifacts were deliberately undervalued and shipped in small batches to multiple addresses in Oklahoma City to avoid drawing the attention of customs agents, prosecutors said.
Bob Murowchick, an associate professor in archaeology and anthropology at Boston University, cast doubt on the company's claim that it didn't know what it was doing.
"It's like that scene in 'Casablanca': 'I am shocked, shocked, that there is gambling going on here,'" Murowchick said.
Under the settlement with prosecutors, Hobby Lobby must return thousands of artifacts it brought to the U.S. in 2010 and 2011.
Hobby Lobby is a cultural powerhouse in the United States. Green doesn't open his 600 stores on Sunday so his 28,000 employees may observe the Christian Sabbath.
The privately held company successfully argued before the Supreme Court in 2014 that because of the owners' religious beliefs, it shouldn't have to supply birth control to employees under "Obamacare."
Because of widespread looting of cultural institutions and other sites in Iraq, U.S. law makes it a crime to possess or traffic in Iraqi archaeological treasures if they were illegally removed from the country since 1990, or if there are reasonable grounds to think so. Iraqi law also prohibits the export of the country's antiquities.
"Our goal is, if we can cut down on the demand or make the punishment severe enough, we will have a chain reaction and people will be unwilling to loot," Murowchick said.
According to prosecutors, Hobby Lobby agreed to buy more than 5,500 artifacts in 2010 for $1.6 million. Some shipments made it through, while others were seized.
The items included cuneiform tablets, cuneiform bricks and clay bullae, which are clay balls imprinted with a seal. Cuneiform is the wedge-shaped writing used thousands of years ago in Mesopotamia, the "Cradle of Civilization" between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in what is now Iraq.
One shipping label listed 300 clay tiles valued at $1 each, when they were, in fact, clay bullae with a combined value of $84,120, prosecutors said.
According to prosecutors, Hobby Lobby was warned by its own expert that acquiring antiquities from Iraq carries "considerable risk" because so many of the artifacts in circulation are stolen. Cuneiform tablets and cylinder seals were "particularly popular on the market and likely to have been looted," the expert told the company.
In a statement, the Museum of the Bible said that none of the artifacts in the settlement were ever part of its collection and that the institution is still on track to open in November.