When the $500 million Museum of the Bible opens Nov. 17 just blocks from Capitol Hill, it won't promote a specific religion, its leaders say.
The museum's finances tell a different story.
Financial documents and interviews reveal a tangled relationship between the nonprofit museum; Hobby Lobby and its owners, the conservative-Christian Green family; and the National Christian Foundation, a donor-advised fund that supports key soldiers in the national battle for conservative Christian values.
The Greens and their craft-store empire have donated to the museum and to the foundation. In addition, the foundation and Hobby Lobby are the primary donors to the museum, according to interviews and financial documents. The circular relationship appears to benefit the family and the company, who have enjoyed large tax breaks for supporting their pet project.
The murky ties between the three entities have attracted the attention of museum and nonprofit experts who have expressed concern about the project's political agenda, potential conflicts of interest and compliance with tax laws. These questions come on the heels of Hobby Lobby's agreement this summer to pay a $3 million fine and forfeit thousands of artifacts that federal authorities said were smuggled out of Iraq.
The museum's leaders play down their connections to conservative Christian causes.
"The museum's role is not to espouse faith," said Steve Green, president of Hobby Lobby. "We just want to present the facts of this book . . . to celebrate this book. We want the visitor to make their own decision."
Hobby Lobby is the family company that successfully challenged the federal government's mandate to provide contraception services to its employees as part of the Affordable Care Act. The National Christian Foundation, a Georgia-based organization with a mission "to advance God's Kingdom," distributes millions of dollars annually to churches and civic organizations, including many engaged in court fights against same-sex marriage, abortion rights and other social policies.
Almost two-thirds of the museum's $557 million in contributions comes from these two sources, according to interviews and recent tax filings. Because nonprofit groups are not required to disclose their donors, it's unclear how much of the total donations are tied to the Greens.
What is clear is the craft store and the museum are deeply connected through gifts and various business deals that shuttle funds between the two for rent, administrative and curatorial services.
"There's a lot of room for conflicts of interest," said John E. Simmons, a museum consultant and president of the Collections Stewardship Professional Network of American Alliance of Museums. "The code of ethics for the American Alliance of Museums says you should avoid conflicts of interest and also the appearance of conflicts of interest."
"They clearly view this as an evangelical outpost to Congress," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, who sees the museum as an attempt "to redefine religious liberty and redo our history."
Green would not disclose how much he has contributed to the museum.
"We don't say," Green said during a 15-minute interview at the museum. "Those are decisions the family makes, and I'm not at liberty to share. If I knew, I wouldn't (share), but I don't know specifically."
The museum's tax records show Hobby Lobby donated $201 million in artifacts, about 2,800 of the Green's 40,000-piece collection. The family and company have given more through NCF.
"A lot of funding we give, whether it be here or to others, we go through NCF," Green continued.
"Museum of the Bible is one of the thousands of charities that we support through our grantmaking," spokesman Steve Chapman wrote in an email. "Much of their support comes from grant recommendations from donors using their Giving Funds."
The museum's most recent audits show 89 percent of all donations last year and 96 percent of all donations the previous year came from one entity, which museum president Cary Summers identified as NCF. Most large gifts come through NCF, Summers said, adding that the museum has 50,000 donors in all. Museum officials declined to provide a list of its donors.
"We get checks in the mail, we get money in an envelope from Sunday school classes and churches. The larger gifts, they normally go through NCF," Summers said.
"Fifty-thousand is a big number," added Green. "Many ministries would never even have that many total supporters, and we're just starting."
The substantial support from the Greens and their company has legal experts questioning the museum's status as a public charity and the increased tax benefits that accompany that status. To be a public charity, a nonprofit must show it receives at least one-third of its funding from many donors, including the general public, government agencies and private foundations. (A private foundation, on the other hand, typically has a single major source of funding.) Nonprofit corporations want to be classified as public charities rather than private foundations because their donors receive larger tax deductions for their gifts.
"There's some more tax advantages, yeah," Green said about the museum's status as a public charity. "If we make a donation, we're going to use that as a write-off. We wouldn't be good stewards if we didn't."
Gifts made through a donor-advised fund like NCF are automatically characterized as public contributions.
"This enables a crazy loophole in which every private foundation founder could, by use of a willing donor-advised fund sponsor, always ensure that their foundation qualifies as a public charity," said Brian Galle, a Georgetown Law professor.
Many donor-advised funds have policies that prevent this loophole. Fidelity Charitable, for example, will not approve a grant where "Fidelity Charitable provides a substantial portion of the organization's public support," according to its online guidelines. The NCF's guidelines do not include such language. Chapman did not respond to several messages seeking information about foundation guidelines.
The IRS can examine the arrangement, Galle said. "NCF is essentially a straw in this transaction, and the way we know that they are a straw is that reputable donor-advised funds refuse to do this," Galle said. "They recognize that if the loophole were widely exploited, it might lead to congressional action."
Hobby Lobby and the museum are also involved in several business deals. Despite creating the museum, the craft company retains ownership of most of its 40,000-item collection. The museum rents storage space from Hobby Lobby in Oklahoma City to keep and care for these items, and in a separate agreement, Hobby Lobby pays the museum for curatorial services, according to tax filings.
"They are leasing space from people who are paying them to care for their collection? I find that odd," Simmons said, adding that such dealings could block accreditation by the American Alliance of Museums. A museum must be open for two years before it can apply for AAM accreditation.
The ties between the museum and its funders only matter if the donor has control over content, said Sally Yerkovich, director of the Institute for Museum Ethics.
"Museums are working more and more toward being transparent," she said. "The issue is whether the donors actually influence what the museum is doing. That will be apparent once they open."
Green is confident that any expectations about proselytizing will disappear. "It's kind of like a movie reviewer reviewing a movie before seeing it," he said. "You might want to check us out before making those claims, and see if we've done our job well."