The nomination of Amy Coney Barrett, a conservative Catholic, to the U.S. Supreme Court has ignited an uncomfortable debate about the intersection of religious faith, public policy and the federal courts that is likely to hang like a shadow over her confirmation hearings.
Republicans have preemptively attacked Democrats ahead of the Senate hearings, which are scheduled to begin Monday, accusing them of religious bigotry for questioning in the past Barrett’s ability to separate her faith from her work as a justice.
“This is the exact form that religious discrimination has taken in America for decades, especially when it’s come to public service,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said this week.
Democrats, meanwhile, have mostly taken pains to avoid talking publicly about Barrett’s Catholicism, having been bruised for doing so during her 2017 confirmation hearing to an appeals court judgeship. Instead, they intend to press her about her views on abortion and gay rights, as well as the Affordable Care Act.
If Barrett wins, her confirmation would mark the culmination of a decades-long push by conservatives to tilt the court to the right — an effort in which traditionalist Catholics have played a major role, providing much of the movement’s energy and strategy as well as its personnel. All five of the Republican nominees currently on the court are Catholic or, in the case of Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, received a Catholic education.
“It is important to understand that the Catholic element is deeply wrapped up with the conservative movement to reshape the courts,” said Amanda Hollis-Brusky, a political science professor at Pomona College in Claremont and co-author of “Separate But Faithful: The Christian Right’s Radical Struggle to Transform Law and Legal Culture.”
“Amy Barrett represents that move to the right,” she said. “The conservative movement knows her very well.”
In part because Barrett has been more open about her positions than previous nominees, her beliefs have attracted extensive attention.
The key question, said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a member of the Judiciary Committee, which will consider Barrett, is whether a nominee passes what he terms the “robing rule.”
“You’re entitled to your own beliefs, you’re entitled to your own faith, and it’s nobody’s business but your own unless you can’t leave it in the robing room, and you’re going to start making judicial decisions not on the law, but based on your personal views,” he said.
This week, Democrats asked the Trump administration for more information about a 2006 open letter in her local newspaper that Barrett signed that urged the abolition of abortion. The advertisement called the Supreme Court’s 1973 landmark Roe vs. Wade decision legalizing abortion nationwide “barbaric.” She has also said she believes life begins at conception.
The group that sponsored the ad had also criticized in vitro fertilization because the process can involve the discarding of unused embryos. The advertisement did not mention that issue. But the possibility that Barrett might share that view prompted Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), who has two children conceived by in vitro fertilization, to write a letter last week saying she felt “dread and anguish” over the possibility that Barrett “likely doesn’t believe my little Maile and my growing Abigail should have ever been born in the first place.”
Much of the attention to Barrett’s religion has focused on her involvement with People of Praise, a Christian group that some former members have likened to a cult. Founded by Catholics in 1971, the People of Praise was formed as evangelical-style ecumenical community. Members were encouraged to attend Mass and services at their local churches but later gather to conduct intense prayer services that could include speaking in tongues.
Critics of the group, including some former members, liken it to a cult, and accuse it of being controlling and say it espoused conservative views of women and sexuality.
Friends of Barrett and members of People of Praise said its structure was not unlike the male-dominated Roman Catholic Church, and it has a surprisingly ideologically diverse membership. They also noted that if the group’s aim was to subjugate women, Barrett didn’t get the memo — she has risen to the top of the legal world.
In more than a dozen interviews, friends and associates described Barrett as a devoted Catholic. The judge, her husband and seven children are members of St. Joseph Catholic Church in South Bend, Ind. They are often spotted attending its 10 a.m. Mass., one preferred by families. Barrett served on the parish’s pastoral council and sent her kids to the parish school, where she also volunteers.
“It is clear that faith is something that has been a constant and central part of her life,” said Paolo Carozza, a fellow law professor at Notre Dame whose family also attends St. Joseph. “She is very ordinary. Her religious life and faith play out in the context of what is a very busy and demanding life.”
Barrett was raised in New Orleans, where her family’s life revolved around the church. She attended an all-girls Catholic school. At Rhodes College in Tennessee, she debated whether to become an English professor or an attorney. She settled on the law, in part, because it would “allow me to be involved in real world things, in real world policy and shaping society,” Barrett told a group of Notre Dame alumni last year.
As she mulled over law schools, she quickly settled on Notre Dame, a conservative Catholic university. Like many Catholics in the 1980s, she had grown up “loving Notre Dame,” she told the alumni, and admired that it took seriously a mission to turn out lawyers who served others.
“I really wanted to choose a place where I would not just be educated as a lawyer,” she told the alumni, “but I wanted to be in a place where I would be developed and inspired as a whole person.”
After graduating, she clerked for Justice Antonin Scalia, also a devout Catholic and legal hero among conservatives, who died in 2016. Nicole Garnett was clerking for Justice Clarence Thomas, another Catholic justice, and recalled Barrett seeking her help the next morning in cleaning the kitchen of the Missionaries of Charity after they served meals to AIDS patients.
“It struck me that everyone else was so wrapped up in their clerkships and working all the time, and she took this day off to serve people,” said Garnett, who has been friends with Barrett ever since and is also a law professor at Notre Dame. “That is just how she is, how her faith is reflected in her life. She has been that way since I met her.”
Barrett took a job as a professor at Notre Dame in 2002 and served as a full-time faculty member until being confirmed to the Chicago-based 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in 2017. Barrett, who still teaches classes at the college as an adjunct professor, is described by students and fellow teachers as an exacting educator.
“In class, she was focused on the legal question,” said Laura Wolk, a former Notre Dame student. “She was very rigorous in that way. She never let her faith enter into the conversation.”
Wolk said the professor was approachable and, in a one-on-one setting, willing to offer spiritual mentoring.
“When there were times I was really struggling with something, I would go to her, and faith would come up, and she knew I spoke the language of faith, so she did, too,” said Wolk, who like other friends of Barrett’s declined to discuss details of her conversations with the judge.
Her friends were also reticent about Barrett’s ties to People of Praise, which go back to her childhood in New Orleans. Her father, Mike Coney, served on the group’s board, and her mother was a female leader of its branch in New Orleans. The parents believed so deeply in the group’s mission that Mike Coney resigned from the Shell Oil Co. because he had been promoted to a job that required him to move his family to Houston.
“Our life was in a covenant community in New Orleans,” Coney told People of Praise’s internal magazine, Vine and Branches, in 2006. “For the sake of our children and ourselves, we needed committed relationships with other Christians who were serious about their faith.”
Barrett and her husband, Jesse, became members of the People of Praise in South Bend when she joined the Notre Dame faculty. The group has a strong local presence and runs one of the city’s leading private schools, where the Barretts have sent some of their children.
Photographs of Barrett and her children have been featured in the People of Praise magazine reviewed by the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post reported that a directory in 2010 listed her as being a “handmaid,” a female spiritual leader.
The term is derived from Mary’s description of herself in the Bible as “the handmaid of the Lord,” but has taken on a more sinister connotation since the airing in 2017 of Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” an adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel of the same title. People of Praise have since replaced the title with “women leaders.”
Adrian Reimers, a founding member, became disenchanted with People of Praise and was dismissed from the group in the 1980s. A philosophy professor at Notre Dame, Reimers wrote a 1997 book that criticized the community’s practices.
“Women play a decidedly secondary role to men,” wrote Reimers, who did not respond to emails seeking comment. He added that the People of Praise expects a married woman “to reflect the fact that she is under her husband’s authority.”
Barrett has described her marriage as a team effort and attributed much of her professional success to help from her husband, a busy lawyer in private practice. They share household duties, and friends say they both are constantly scrambling to shuttle their kids to practices, recitals and other events.
“At the start of our marriage, I imagined that we would run our household as partners,” Barrett said at the White House when President Trump announced her nomination on Sept. 26. “As it has turned out, Jesse does far more than his share of the work. To my chagrin, I learned at dinner recently that my children consider him to be the better cook.”