WASHINGTON — The evangelical Christian family that owns Hobby Lobby, the chain of craft stores, made history two weeks ago when the Supreme Court overturned the Obama administration’s mandate that family-owned companies must provide contraceptive coverage to their employees.
Now, the family is looking to build a permanent presence on the Washington, D.C., landscape, by establishing a sprawling museum dedicated to the Bible — just two blocks south of the National Mall.
The development of a Bible museum has long been a dream of the Oklahoma-based Green family, which has built Hobby Lobby into a $3 billion company in which its Christian beliefs infuse every aspect of the business, from the music played in its stores to being closed on Sundays.
But on the heels of the company’s legal victory, the project is raising concern in some quarters that the Greens’ museum could blur the line between educating and evangelizing. Steve Green, president of Hobby Lobby and the son of its founder, has referred to the Bible as “a reliable historical document,” and, as part of the museum project, he is developing a curriculum to “reintroduce this book to this nation.”
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“This nation is in danger because of its ignorance of what God has taught,” Green, who declined to be interviewed, said in a speech last year in New York.
Such sentiments have stirred fears about the museum among groups such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which promotes separation between church and state. “I think they are a great threat,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, a co-president of the group, which is based in Madison, Wis. “My instincts would tell me that they are choosing Washington, D.C., because they intend to influence Congress.”
Scheduled to open in 2017, the yet-to-be-named museum would welcome people of all faiths and include rare Torahs as well as historic Bibles.
After surveying cities, including Dallas and New York, for more than a year, the Museum of the Bible, the Green family’s nonprofit organization that is overseeing the project, chose Washington for its tourists, robust museum culture and national profile.
The museum, which will occupy half a block in southwest Washington, will sit in the shadow of some of the capital’s most prominent institutions, including the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum. It will replace the Washington Design Center, a hulking, eight-story brick-and-stone structure that was originally built as a refrigerating warehouse in the 1920s, before home refrigeration was common.
Green’s group acquired the 400,000-square-foot space in 2012 for $50 million.
The Green family has been the primary financial backer to date, but a national fundraising drive will soon be under way to help finance the reconstruction.
Details from a filing with Washington’s historic-preservation review board showed that Green plans to restore the building’s facade, gut and reinforce the interior and build a two-story glass addition on the roof.
The proposal still needs final approval from the city because the building, which is considered an important example of Renaissance Revival architecture, is being designated as a historic landmark. According to David Maloney, the state historic-preservation officer for the District of Columbia, approval of the museum’s final design is expected by the end of the month.
The genesis of a nonprofit Bible museum came five years ago when Green, a Protestant, took some of the money he made from Hobby Lobby and started scouring the world for ancient manuscripts, Torahs, papyri and Bibles. He spent more than $30 million during his initial buying spree, but Scott Carroll, an archaeologist and historian who advised Green on his purchases, estimated that the collection is now worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
“You’re talking about landmark acquisitions,” Carroll said, referring to items such as a nearly complete book of Psalms on papyrus and the earliest recordings of the New Testament in Jesus’ household language of Palestinian Aramaic. “These are huge things that any museum, to have a portion of them, would be honored to have.”
Specifics of the exhibits have not been released, but the traveling show of Green’s collection offers some clues. It included theatrical experiences such as hologram re-creations of biblical scenes, re-enactments of fourth-century monks transcribing the Bible by candlelight in St. Jerome’s Cave and a multimedia “Noah’s ark experience.”