David Green felt like the black sheep of his family. His five other siblings had followed their preacher father into church work; David went into retail.
But as his business successes mounted, he found his religious calling: using the financial might from his Hobby Lobby arts and crafts chain as an engine for evangelism. That mission, until recent years carried out largely within the world of Pentecostal Christianity, took the 72-year-old Green all the way to a landmark victory Monday at the U.S. Supreme Court over the birth control coverage rule in President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul.
“I don’t think they decided to go into that kind of an area. I think it was forced on them by the government,” said Vinson Synan, a friend of the Greens and a prominent scholar of Pentecostal history at Regent University. “They’ll be heroes to the very conservative religious people who are very much against abortion.”
The justices ruled, 5-4, that requiring closely-held companies such as Hobby Lobby to pay for methods of women’s contraception to which they object violates the corporations’ religious freedom. It was the first time the high court has declared that businesses can hold religious views under federal law.
Women’s rights groups and their supporters condemned the decision. But the ruling revitalized religious conservatives who, after a series of defeats over gay marriage, felt they were on the losing side of the culture wars. Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s public policy arm, said after Monday’s ruling, “I’m so happy about this I almost want to be dancing in the streets about it.”
Before the court case, the Greens were already considered a first family of Pentecostalism because of their largesse and the example they set as Christian business owners. Hobby Lobby, based in Oklahoma City, has about $3 billion in yearly revenues and donates millions of dollars in profits to charity.
The Greens close their stores on Sundays so employees can attend church or be with family, and they pay full-time employees a minimum of $15 an hour. The family buys full-page newspaper ads each Christmas and Easter to emphasize the religious beliefs behind the holidays and advertise a Christian ministry they support called Need Him. They have spent tens of millions of dollars to buy vacant buildings, land and entire campuses, which they have given away to churches and religious colleges.
Yet the family’s profile began rising far beyond Christian circles around 2008, when Mart Green, David’s son, spent about $70 million of the family fortune to rescue Oral Roberts University, the Pentecostal school in Oklahoma that was engulfed in a spending scandal and burdened with tens of millions of dollars in debt. Mart Green told The Associated Press that year he stepped in because, “if ORU goes down it affects all the Christian colleges.”
The Greens drew even more notice for their plans to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to create a Bible museum on land near the National Mall in Washington, which will display the family’s massive collection of biblical artifacts, including ancient texts. Steven Green, David’s other son and president of Hobby Lobby, is also spearheading the Green Scholars Initiative, which intends to place a Bible-based academic curriculum in the nation’s public schools.
Last year, the National Bible Association gave its John M. Templeton Biblical Values Award to Steven Green for putting the family and the company “in the crosshairs of one of the most important debates going on in American society” by suing over the contraceptive coverage rule. “If it weren’t for people like Steve and his family, the government would have gotten away with this,” said Sean Fieler, chairman of the panel that chose award recipients.
More than a dozen members of the Green family met with Pope Francis earlier this year for about 30 minutes at the Vatican.
Immediately after the Supreme Court ruling, critics began calling for a boycott of the arts and crafts chain. Hobby Lobby has about 600 stores nationwide, but they are largely concentrated in the South and Midwest, where their customers would be more likely to be conservative churchgoers, too.
A spokeswoman said the Green family was not granting interviews.
Friends say they would be surprised to see the Greens channel their newfound public prominence into the political mobilizing of the religious right.
“The Supreme Court case thrust them into a spotlight they really weren’t seeking,” said Mark DeMoss, who has known and worked with the Greens for several years. “I think if there had been another way, if there was a way you could have written a letter to some arbitration panel and gotten a personal ruling, I think they would have done that.”
Kristi Eaton contributed reporting from Oklahoma City.