One of America's most high-profile Christian businesses is under investigation for illegally importing ancient Middle Eastern artefacts, according to the Daily Beast.
The owners of Hobby Lobby, which won a Supreme Court victory against the government last year when it challenged its right to force businesses to offer certain kinds of contraception under the Obamacare health programme, are to open a new Museum of the Bible in Washington in 2017. They have been amassing a huge collection of artefacts including ancient cuneiform tablets from Iraq.
The Daily Beast has confirmed that a shipment of between 200 and 300 of these tablets was seized by customs agents in 2011 on suspicion that they were imported illegally. Authorities have not yet decided whether to prosecute.
According to Museum of the Bible president Cary Summers, "There was a shipment and it had improper paperwork – incomplete paperwork that was attached to it."
However, the Beast's investigation found that hundreds of hours of interviews had been recorded relative to the case, which would make it far more serious than Summers implied.
It suggests that the tablets may have been deliberately undervalued to allow them to be brought into the country in a process known as "informal entry", for items valued under $2,500, rather than the formal entry process in which items are closely scrutinised. It says it has been told that the tablets were described on their FedEx shipping label as samples of "hand-crafted clay tiles" and valued at $300; this "vastly underestimates their true worth, and, just as important, obscures their identification as the cultural heritage of Iraq", it says.
Steve Green, the CEO of Hobby Lobby, said that it was possible that his family might have some illegally-acquired antiquities but denied deliberately doing anything wrong.
The family is extremely wealthy and any financial penalty they face is unlikely to trouble them. However, Hobby Lobby has laid great stress on its Christian principles and a criminal conviction would be highly embarrassing.