In March, David Green, second from left, his wife, Barbara, center, and family members leave the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington.
OKLAHOMA CITY — 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 Mr. Green all the way to a landmark victory last week at the U.S. Supreme Court over the birth-control coverage rule in President 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 the 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 go to church or be with family, and they pay full-time workers a minimum of $15 per hour. Mr. Green has said that Hobby Lobby has no Christian requirement for its workers but sets “a positive environment that happens to be based on biblical principles.”
“They don’t see their secular and their spiritual life as a bifurcated; they see it as intertwined,” said Rob Hoskins, president of the OneHope ministry and friend of the Greens.
A spokesman said the Green family was not granting interviews.
Mr. Green rose through the ranks of the five-and-dime chain TG&Y, then started Hobby Lobby in Oklahoma City with a $600 loan. He bought a frame chopper, and, on the family’s kitchen table, he made miniature picture frames, with his wife and sons doing most of the gluing.
Within three years, the firm had $150,000 in annual sales. Now, Hobby Lobby has nearly 600 stores across 47 states. The company, which employs more than 13,000 workers, donates a tenth of its profits to charity and carries little debt.
In the mid-1990s, Mr. Green, upset with how newspapers were writing about Christian holidays, began buying full-page Christmas and Easter ads in U.S. newspapers, spreading his message and referring readers to a toll-free help line for spiritual aid.
The ads angered some who accused the retail chain of mixing religion with business. One person even sent a bomb threat emblazoned with the image of Timothy McVeigh, who killed 168 people when he detonated a truck bomb at an Oklahoma City federal building in 1995.
But the company’s leaders have continued to make promoting Christianity a central part of their business. Affiliated companies, also run by the family, sell furniture and Christian educational supplies.
“There is no getting around the fact that Jesus offends some people,” Mr. Green wrote in More Than a Hobby, his book about the business. “Nevertheless, he is too important in my life for me to cower in fear of mentioning his name.”
The family has spent tens of millions of dollars to buy empty buildings, land, and entire campuses, which they have given to churches and religious colleges.
Yet the Greens’ profile began rising beyond Christian circles around 2008, when Mart Green, David’s son, spent about $70 million of the Green fortune to save Oral Roberts University, the Pentecostal school in Oklahoma that was mired in a spending scandal and 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 cross-hairs 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.
Friends say they would be surprised to see the Greens channel their new-found 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.”