There’s another controversy brewing around Hobby Lobby – but this one has nothing to do with birth control. New York’s Attorney General, Eric T. Schneiderman, recently settled a two-year investigation into the embattled craft store chain by hitting it with a $220,000 fine for deceptive advertising practices.According to a statement available on the Attorney General’s website, the investigation began after the state received reports that the chain advertised steep sales year-round. New York state residents received ads promising 30-50 percent off regular prices, but mysteriously, the sales never seemed to end.It’s a clever, if unethical, advertising gimmick. In New York, it’s illegal.“When companies mislead customers by advertising never-ending sales, our office will hold them accountable,” the attorney general’s office noted, and added, “Ultimately, a permanent sale is no sale at all.”The statement also states that the chain will provide “nearly 700 schools a total of $138,600 in gift cards for supplies” as part of the settlement. That’s in addition to the $220,000 lump sum.
For its part, Hobby Lobby disputes the attorney general’s findings. The Los Angeles Times reports that the chain “disagrees” with the allegations, but company spokeswoman Ashley Wilemon stated, “[W]e are pleased that the resolution of the Attorney General’s claims provides an opportunity to contribute to the needs of teachers and schoolchildren in New York.”Hobby Lobby is a multi-billion corporation capable of absorbing this latest hit. But for an entity so deeply invested in its religious façade, it’s a PR crisis they can ill afford. That’s particularly relevant given the fact the chain is also fending off claims its owners, in conjunction with the Mustang, Okla., school board, deliberately circumvented open-meeting laws in order to plot the launch of a Bible curriculum in Mustang public schools.As I’ve reported previously on this blog, Hobby Lobby’s devout owner, Steve Green, dedicated a significant portion of his vast financial resources to the design and production of a Bible class for public high school students, under the auspices of his Green Scholars Initiative. Americans United and other civil liberties watchdogs are now challenging the constitutionality of that class, based on content indicating that it would be taught from a sectarian perspective, despite Green’s claims to the contrary.Emails obtained by Americans United, the ACLU and the Freedom From Religion Foundation also revealed that, under the direction of Mustang school superintendent Sean McDaniel, Hobby Lobby and school officials attempted to avoid unwelcome media attention by skirting Oklahoma’s open meetings laws.“Oklahoma Open Meeting Laws require that if a quorum of board members meet to discuss school business that we would have to file for a Special Meeting with the county and post an agenda. That would allow the public, including the media to attend the meeting, which we do not want at this point,” McDaniel wrote in an email to Jerry Pattengale, head of the Green Scholars Initiative, and Steve Green himself, among others. McDaniel suggested a private luncheon with “no more than 2” of Mustang’s school board members as an alternative. Hobby Lobby agreed.Observers could be forgiven for concluding the chain is no stranger to deception.And that’s worth remembering as we await the Supreme Court’s verdict in the chain’s challenge to the Affordable Care Act’s so-called contraception mandate. The Green family claims that it runs the chain according to deeply held Christian principles, and therefore, they should be exempt from providing access to insurance plans that cover what they believe are abortion-inducing drugs.This too is a misleading claim, if not a blatantly deceptive one; Hobby Lobby had actually covered those drugs for years until the Affordable Care Act passed. Many observers believes Green just doesn’t like President Barack Obama very much.The Green family doesn’t shirk from public declarations of their fundamentalist Christian faith, and they’ve spent significant time, money and ink to claim that their legal battle is merely an attempt to defend that faith from attack. But these latest scandals magnify a question that has always lurked between the lines of their arguments: Whose Christianity are they really trying to defend? Is it the Christianity of their employees, which permits and might even encourage family planning? Is it the Christianity of the customers harmed by their advertising practices – a Christianity that demands honesty from its adherents?Perhaps they’re just trying to defend Steve Green’s Christianity, and nobody else’s.That Christianity, while entitled to First Amendment protections, cannot and should not be enshrined in American law.