Hobby Lobby

Damned if you do, damned if you don't: Museum of Bible is hot news, no matter what

Damned if you do, damned if you don't: Museum of Bible is hot news, no matter what

The debates began during World War II and raged through the following decades among human-rights advocates, private art collectors, museum leaders and others.

The Nazis stole astonishing amounts of Jewish art on an unprecedented scale (something like the legendary 1204 rape of Byzantium by Crusaders). Some of that art vanished. Some went to art collectors, and museums, with leaders who argued that the greater good was to save it for viewing by future display. Some insisted these treasures must be returned to the heirs of the families who owned them. But what if there were no heirs?

Now, similar arguments are raging about antiquities looted by the Islamic State as it ravaged the ancient communities, monasteries, churches, mosques, libraries, etc., of Iraq and Syria. Treasures hit the black market in the Internet age and, again, arguments raged about whether it is legal or moral to purchase these items, rather than leaving them in the hands of ISIS. But did purchasing them fund terrorism? It would appear so. Would it have been better to have let these items vanish into the hands of collectors who would hoard them out of sight? How could these treasures be returned to religious communities that, in some cases, no longer exist?

To say the least, the Green family of Hobby Lobby fame and its Museum of the Bible got caught up in these scandals, producing waves of headlines. The crucial issue: At what point does trading for these items cross the line into theft and encouraging theft?

So what makes a museum controversial? That was the question at the heart of this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in).

As it turns out, there are all kinds of reasons for people -- secular and religious -- to argue about the new Museum of the Bible, just off the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Some of these issues ended up in a Washington Post feature that was the focus of my recent post on this subject. Headline: "Washington Post religion team (thank God) gets to offer first look at the Museum of the Bible."

At the heart of the Post piece was a fascinating, and perfectly valid, damned if you do, damned if your don't question about this museum.

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Washington Post religion team (thank God) gets to offer first look at the Museum of the Bible

Washington Post religion team (thank God) gets to offer first look at the Museum of the Bible

From the very beginning, there have been several ways of viewing the Museum of the Bible, the ambitious project near the National Mall spearheaded by the wealthy Christian family that owns Hobby Lobby. For example:

* This is Washington, D.C. This is all about politics, like everything else.

* Some critics claimed that it would be a church-state violation to allow the museum to be built close to the mall, and the Smithsonian museums -- even with private money on private land. That argument might work in France, but in the United States of America?

* There's no other way to say this, except to say it: Many folks inside the DC Beltway simply thought this whole idea was TACKY, a kind of Religious Right theme park near sacred secular ground covered with Real Stuff.

* From the beginning, there were tensions between people with evangelical dreams that the building would witness to their brand of faith and scholars around the world -- in a variety of traditions, including evangelical Protestantism -- whose expertise would be essential to completing the project.

* A more subtle point: Is the Museum of the Bible simply too big, too ambitious, to survive as a tourism-driven project? The natural comparison is to the Newseum, a massive, expensive, valid project (I used to take Washington Journalism Center students there every semester) that is now swamped in millions of dollars of red ink. Note, however: Admission to the Bible museum will be free. Can that last?

You can see all of these themes, and more, swirling through the recent Washington Post feature about the Bible museum, which -- here is the crucial point -- was produced by the newspaper's religion-desk professionals (as opposed to the Style section or even the political desk). The headline: "Sneak peek: D.C.’s huge new Museum of the Bible includes lots of tech -- but not a lot of Jesus."

But "not a lot of Jesus"? What's that all about? Here is the overture:

The Museum of the Bible, a massive new institution opening next month just south of the Mall, is just as notable for what it ­includes -- vivid walk-through re-creations of the ancient world, one of the world’s largest private collections of Torahs, a motion ride that sprays water at you, a garden of biblical plants -- as for what it leaves out.

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Were artifacts forfeited by Hobby Lobby headed to Museum of the Bible? It's complicated (maybe)

Were artifacts forfeited by Hobby Lobby headed to Museum of the Bible? It's complicated (maybe)

Big fine. Bad publicity. That pretty much describes Hobby Lobby's week.

"I'm sure the media just salivate over stories like this," complained a Facebook user who commented on a link posted by a friend of mine. 

Maybe so. But in this case, can anyone really deny that this is news? The basics from the Wall Street Journal:

In 2010, the president of Hobby Lobby spent $1.6 million on thousands of ancient artifacts that he hoped would help build a collection of antiquities related to the Bible.
There was one problem: The items appeared to have been stolen from Iraq, federal authorities alleged, then smuggled into the U.S. from the United Arab Emirates and Israel, bearing labels identifying them as “ceramic tiles” and “Tiles (Sample).”
The Oklahoma City-based arts-and-crafts retailer settled the claims with the government on Wednesday, according to a civil complaint and settlement filed by the Brooklyn U.S. Attorney’s office. Hobby Lobby will surrender the artifacts, pay a $3 million fine and adopt new procedures for buying cultural property.
In a statement posted on its website, the privately held company said its lack of familiarity with the “complexities of the acquisitions process” led to some “regrettable mistakes,” including relying on dealers and shippers who, “in hindsight, did not understand the correct way to document and ship these items.”
The aim of the company, which is owned by an evangelical Christian family, was to develop “a collection of historically and religiously important books and artifacts about the Bible,” to preserve and share with the public, the statement said.

Overall, the WSJ story was pretty tame compared to some other major news organizations' reports. 

Religion News Service (a national wire service for which I occasionally freelance) quoted experts who said Hobby Lobby "must have known it was illegally importing artifacts":

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Gorsuch nomination rumble underscores need for religion writers to understand Constitutional law

Gorsuch nomination rumble underscores need for religion writers to understand Constitutional law

Religion reporters need to be knowledgeable on Constitutional law because U.S. federal courts continually handle newsworthy church-and-state dust ups. That is underscored by the partisan rumble over Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch of the Denver-based 10th Circuit Court of Appeals (which will be the proverbial Sunday School picnic compared with the next Supreme Court vacancy.)   

The Left is aggrieved because Gorsuch wrote the circuit opinion favoring Hobby Lobby’s bid for a religious exemption from Obamacare’s mandatory birth-control coverage (the Supreme Court later agreed with him), and joined the court minority that backed similar claims from the Little Sisters of the Poor. A bit of the byplay:

Legal journalist Dahlia Lithwick typifies the critics, saying Gorsuch personifies an “alarming tendency” toward “systematically privileging the rights of religious believers” to “impose their views on others” as though their “faith must not be questioned, or even assessed.”  Evangelical attorney David French responds that in such conflicts a “human, natural, and constitutional right” properly takes priority over “a regulatory privilege.”

On Hobby Lobby, Planned Parenthood’s head protests that Gorsuch believes “bosses should be able to decide whether or not women should be able to get birth-control coverage.” A National Review editorial calls that a distortion because (1) the ruling affects only narrow cases that involve  the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and (2) in any case employers cannot prevent employees from obtaining coverage.

Gorsuch reminded senators of two cases where he supported the religious liberty of non-Christians.

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Part II: New Year’s observations on matters religion writers will want to be watching

Part II: New Year’s observations on matters religion writers will want to be watching

Let's continue with some of the themes we were discussing in the previous Religion Guy Memo, in which I offered some predictions on what kinds of news items and trends religion-beat specialists will want to anticipate during 2017.

Watch for the U.S. Supreme Court to schedule the oral arguments in three complex cases consolidated under Advocate Health Care Network vs. Stapleton. At issue: Special pension exemptions for religious organizations other than churches. The Atlantic headline for a piece on this says the outcome “could bankrupt religious schools and hospitals.”

The speaker list for the customary Jan. 21 interfaith service at Washington's Episcopal cathedral the day after President Trump's inauguration will be worth coverage and comment. Will any ranking Muslim leaders agree to participate? Will any observant Jews appear even though it's the Sabbath day? Will Southern Baptist spokesman Russell Moore or other #NeverTrump clergy be invited?  

The NRB International Christian Media Convention in Orlando Feb. 27–March 2 will be a handy place to collect evangelical hallelujahs (and any lamentations) about the Trump Presidency. Headliners include Kelvin Cochran, fired as Atlanta fire chief over anti-gay statements; Alan Sears, whose Alliance Defending Freedom litigates religious-liberty cases; the Rev. Jonathan Falwell, who leads father Jerry’s local church; and radio pundits Steve Deace and Hugh Hewitt.

Yes, Virginia, there are pro-evolution evangelicals, and biologos.com plans a March 29 – 31 conference in Houston about “the rich harmony between modern science and biblical faith.” Speakers include British New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, Wheaton College Old Testament Professor John Walton (author of the controversial “Lost World of Adam and Eve”), and Christianity Today Executive Editor Andy Crouch.

Speaking of Bible debates in the news.

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Fighting taxes: Just crazy religious antics to the Indianapolis Star

Fighting taxes: Just crazy religious antics to the Indianapolis Star

The religious crazies are at it again in Indiana, trying to use the state version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act for their aberrant behavior. This time, it's a guy who's trying to get out of paying taxes.

And once again, the Indianapolis Star has managed to run a religion story without talking to any religious people.

One Rodney Tyms-Bey says that "paying his state taxes is a burden on his religion," the newspaper says:

At trial, Tyms-Bey, 41, claimed the religious freedom law is a valid defense for tax evasion, an argument the court rejected.
A clause in Indiana's RFRA permits individuals to cite the law as a defense in criminal legal proceedings, unlike the federal RFRA law enacted in 1993.
"When this law was signed, it opened up a whole new world of legal defense," said Matthew Gerber, Tyms-Bey's defense attorney.
The state argues that Tyms-Bey cannot use the defense, as he failed to identify his religion and the state's imposition of income tax does not burden his religious practice — whatever it may be.

The case is two years old, but oral arguments were scheduled for appellate court today -- showing how tangled matters of church and state can get. We GR folk have scrutinized reports on RFRA and its state versions for a couple of decades -- from gay marriage in Mississippi to Santeria sacrifices in Florida -- but Tyms-Bey's case seems like an enormous reach.

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A question that would stun old-school left: Does religious liberty in U.S. go too far?

A question that would stun old-school left: Does religious liberty in U.S. go too far?

NORMAN’S QUESTION:

Given that many religious groups have some very socially undesirable beliefs and, even more, practices, how much does religious liberty in America need to be restricted?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Here’s a sketch of a very complex constellation of issues. The question provides no examples of what’s offensive but The Guy guesses that Norman is a liberal critic of religion who especially decries “socially undesirable” religious stands on moral matters like homosexuality. Such hostility from liberals, in turn, provokes deeper worries among traditionalists about religious freedom that we’ve seen since perhaps the 19th Century (something candidate Donald Trump hopes to capitalize on).

Preliminary points: Most religions and most believers agree society’s common good overrules any claimed religious justifications for heinous crimes. That would include terrorism enacted in God’s name by today’s Muslim extremists or, in centuries past, human sacrifice rituals of non-biblical faiths. Some religious activism is generally regarded as positive for society (abolition of slavery, women’s vote, civil rights) and other campaigns as negative (alcohol prohibition).

Certain “new atheists” are so intent on restricting religion that they would forbid parents from teaching their children about faith (while avoiding whether freethinkers should likewise be barred from teaching children that viewpoint). Some democratic nations have sought to discipline preachers who advocate traditional moral beliefs.

In the U.S., the Constitution erects a barrier against such extreme anti-religion tactics. But local and state legislatures, and increasingly powerful administrative rulings, have sought religious limits in various ways. For instance, a pending California law would drop a religious exemption to facilitate gay and transgender students’ discrimination suits, potentially affecting 42 colleges.

U.S. Supreme Court rulings draw the ultimate legal lines and thus provide many of the examples below.

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McClatchy story on DC Bible museum gets some very creative editing by the Seattle Times

McClatchy story on DC Bible museum gets some very creative editing by the Seattle Times

It started on a Saturday afternoon when I was gazing at a print version of the Sunday Seattle Times. It was actually the “bulldog” edition, so-called because it comes out the day before. Before in the days before the Internet, this was the term used to describe the earliest edition of the Sunday paper that was sent to remote locations statewide so that theoretically, at least, everyone in the circulation area had some version of that big edition to look at.

I noticed this headline: “D.C.’s Bible museum will celebrate Christian Scripture.”

Now, last time I looked, the much maligned museum was planning to cover the Old Testament, aka the Hebrew Bible, as well as the New Testament. My colleagues Jim Davis and Bobby Ross covered the Washington Post’s article on this. So what’s this “Christian Scriptures” bit? Why not “Jewish Scriptures”?

What I turned up was one of the weirder instances I’ve run across of creative editing by wire desks. First, there was the original story filed Dec. 24 by a writer for McClatchy News Service:

WASHINGTON -- The National Mall may be the nation’s front lawn, but even at holiday time the museums that line it are only lightly decorated with Christmas trees and lights and not with any religious displays.
But a new privately-owned museum is going up just a few blocks away –- the Museum of the Bible –- that only wants to celebrate Scripture. The $400 million project two blocks south of the National Air and Space Museum doesn’t have to worry about laws or rulings that keep religion and state separate.
The museum is the brainchild of Steve Green, president of Hobby Lobby, the privately-owned Oklahoma City crafts chain that follows its owners’ evangelical beliefs, including closing its 600 stores on Sundays.

Now, that’s not what was in the Seattle Times.

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Washington Post ignores a crucial fact, as HHS mandate cases head to high court

Washington Post ignores a crucial fact, as HHS mandate cases head to high court

The other day, I wrote a post that ran under this long and, I admit, rather scary headline: "Wait! Did The New York Times just argue that voluntary religious associations are dangerous?"

The piece was part of a Times series called "Beware the Fine Print." As I stressed in my post, the reporting in this feature raised interesting, valid questions about "Christian arbitration" clauses in legal contracts, especially those linked to businesses -- as opposed to doctrinally defined schools, ministries and other faith-based nonprofits.

However, several of the case studies in this story suggested that its thesis was that it's dangerous, period, when religious groups create doctrinal covenants that define the boundaries of their voluntary associations.

This is, of course, a First Amendment issue that looms over one of last week's biggest stories, which is the latest challenge to the Affordable Care Act (also known, among its critics, as Obamacare) that is headed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The key question: Can religiously affiliated schools, hospitals, charities and other nonprofit ministries be forced by the government into cooperating with acts that violate the doctrines that define their work and the traditions of their faith communities? Should the government actively back the efforts of employees (and other members of these voluntary associations, such as students) to break the contracts and doctrinal covenants that they chose to sign? Again, do Christian colleges have to cooperate in helping their own students and employees violate the covenants that they signed in order to join these faith-based communities? Do the Little Sisters of the Poor need to help their own employees violate the teachings of the Catholic Church?

Flip things around: Try to imagine the government forcing an Episcopal seminary to fund, oh, reparative therapy sessions for a gay student or employee who wanted to modify his sexual behaviors? Why force the seminary to violate its own doctrines?

This leads me to an interesting chunk or two of a Washington Post report about the Health & Human Services mandate cases that will soon be debated at the high court.

Here's the problem. The story never mentions the fact that many of these institutions require employees (and students) to sign doctrinal and/or lifestyle covenants affirming -- or at the very least, promising not to publicly oppose -- the faith traditions on which their work is based.

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