Michael Hiltzik Columnist
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Hobby Lobby gets caught with smuggled Iraqi antiquities

Hobby Lobby, the private Oklahoma company that won a landmark Supreme Court case by pleading that its business was run according to rigorously moral Christian principles, has been caught importing millions of dollars worth of smuggled Iraqi antiquities.

That’s according to the U.S. attorney in Brooklyn, N.Y., which said Wednesday that it had extracted a settlement of $3 million from the company and forced it to forfeit thousands of artifacts.

Hobby Lobby said in a statement that it made the purchases of biblical material and other artifacts as an expression of “the company’s mission and passion for the Bible.” It said that it “did not fully appreciate the complexities of the acquisitions process,” resulting in “some regrettable mistakes.”

The company said it “imprudently relied on dealers and shippers who, in hindsight, did not understand the correct way to document and ship these items.”

The prosecutors indicated, however, that Hobby Lobby knew well that it could be stepping into legal quicksand.

The prosecutors said that Hobby Lobby had been warned by an expert in 2010 that the artifacts might very likely have been looted from Iraqi archaeological sites. According to the government’s complaint, the unidentified expert told the company in a memo, “I would regard the acquisition of any artifact likely from Iraq….as carrying considerable risk.”

“The acquisition of the artifacts,” the prosecutors added, was “fraught with red flags.”

Among other signs, “Hobby Lobby received conflicting information where the artifacts had been stored prior to the inspection” in the United Arab Emirates. “In addition, Hobby Lobby representatives had not met or communicated with the dealer who purportedly owned the artifacts, nor did they pay him for the artifacts.” Instead, the company wired payments “to seven personal bank accounts held in the names of other individuals.

When the objects arrived at Hobby Lobby locations in the U.S., they bore labels that “falsely and misleadingly described their contents as ‘ceramic tiles’ or ‘clay tiles (sample).’ ” Eventually, customs authorities intercepted some of the shipments and the scheme fell apart.

The case suggests at least on the surface that there are limits to Hobby Lobby’s adherence to moral principles, leaving aside the prosecutors’ contradiction of the company’s claim of ignorance.

Hobby Lobby, it will be remembered, scored an important victory over the Obama administration in 2014. That’s when the Supreme Court ruled that, because the family that owned the chain felt so strongly that certain contraceptives violated Christian principles, it should be permitted to shun the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that all health insurance plans provide birth control without deductibles or co-pays.

The decision vastly expanded religious exceptions to general laws, which previously had been granted to genuinely religious organizations or individuals participating in religious rites. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in dissent, memorably predicted that the court was thereby venturing “into a minefield.” She’s been proved right many times as more people and companies with tenuous connections to religious organizations claim similar exemptions. Another such case will come before the court in its October term.

The antiquities in the new case were estimated by a consultant to be worth $11.8 million. Hobby Lobby paid $1.6 million for them.

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UPDATES:

9:12 p.m.: This post has been updated with details from the government lawsuit.

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