Amy Coney Barrett’s religion provoked controversy during her confirmation hearing for the federal bench, when a Democratic senator raised her Catholic beliefs, which supporters argued amounted to an unconstitutional religious test.
Now that is a top candidate being considered by President Donald Trump to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the U.S. Supreme Court, all facets of her biography are under scrutiny again. Bringing up Barrett’s faith is controversial; some Catholic groups have accused some Democratic senators of exhibiting anti-Catholic bias.
Barrett is considered to be a devout Catholic and, according to The New York Times, she and her family belong to a Christian covenant community known as the People of Praise. Amy Barrett and her husband, Jesse, who is a federal prosecutor, have seven children together. Two of their children were born in Haiti, and they are also raising a special needs child.
Barrett, 48, is a former law professor who took a seat on the federal bench in 2017 as a Trump appointee. You can read her Judiciary Committee questionnaire from when she was first nominated to the federal bench by Donald Trump here. She was confirmed in 2017.
Here’s what you need to know about Amy Coney Barrett’s Religion:
1. A Democratic Senator Caused Controversy By Saying She Was Concerned the ‘Dogma’ Lives in Barrett
Amy Coney Barrett’s religion provoked controversy during her nomination hearing to become a federal judge. In 2017, U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California) brought up Amy Barrett’s religion and said she was concerned “the dogma lives loudly within you.”
Feinstein continued, “And that’s of concern when you come to big issues that large numbers of people have fought for for years in this country.” She added, “You are controversial. Let’s start with that. You’re controversial because many of us who have lived our lives as women really recognize the value of finally being able to control our reproductive systems, and Roe entered into that, obviously. … You have a long history of believing that your religious beliefs should prevail.”
Some criticized Feinstein for going too far and possibly creating an unconstitutional religious test to be on the U.S. Supreme Court. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said Feinstein’s remarks were a throwback to a time when “anti-Catholic bigotry did distort our laws and civil order.”
“We will be watching this carefully,” said Bill Donahue, president of the Catholic League, an anti-discrimination group, to Politico. The grou[p believes that Feinstein and other Senators have shown anti-Catholic bias and should recuse themselves, citing Feinstein, Chuck Schumer, Dick Durbin, Mazie Hirono and Kamala Harris .
“The Democrats are making a big mistake if they talk about her religion,” said Father Thomas Reese, former editor-in-chief of the Catholic weekly magazine America, to Politico.
According to National Review, Amy Coney Barrett is considered a devout Catholic. “…she speaks about God as if she really believes in His existence,” the conservative website National Review reported of Barrett’s faith.
In a graduation speech, Barrett referenced God, saying, “No matter how exciting any career is, what is it really worth if you don’t make it part of a bigger life project to know, love and serve the God who made you?”
The Christian Broadcasting Network reported that evangelicals were “buzzing about Amy Coney Barrett.” David Brody, CBN’s Chief Political Correspondent, told the network, “Many of my sources, evangelical in nature, love her. They believe that she is the one that if they had their dream pick that she would be the one. Barrett has been very outspoken of her Catholic views and God.”
2. A Paper Barrett Helped Write as a Law Student on the Death Penalty Is Under Scrutiny
A look at potential SCOTUS nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett pic.twitter.com/YmgWU2r5OJ
— Fox News (@FoxNews) July 3, 2018
In 1998, when Amy Barrett was a law student, she helped write a paper about the death penalty along with now Catholic University of America head John Garvey. The question at hand was whether Catholic judges should hear death penalty cases if their moral conscience made them feel obligated to oppose the death penalty.
You can find the article here. The abstract for it reads, “The Catholic Church’s opposition to the death penalty places Catholic judges in a moral and legal bind. While these judges are obliged by oath, professional commitment, and the demands of citizenship to enforce the death penalty, they are also obliged to adhere to their church’s teaching on moral matters. Although the legal system has a solution for this dilemma by allowing the recusal of judges whose convictions keep them from doing their job, Catholic judges will want to sit whenever possible without acting immorally. However, litigants and the general public are entitled to impartial justice, which may be something a judge who is heedful of ecclesiastical pronouncements cannot dispense. Therefore, the authors argue, we need to know whether judges are legally disqualified from hearing cases that their consciences would let them decide. While mere identification of a judge as Catholic is not sufficient reason for recusal under federal law, the authors suggest that the moral impossibility of enforcing capital punishment in such cases as sentencing, enforcing jury recommendations, and affirming are in fact reasons for not participating.”
According to The Atlantic, the paper argued that “in certain, limited circumstances…federal judges should step back from involvement in cases that might raise conflicts of conscience” but they did not argue that “judges should step back from morally complicated cases all, or even most, of the time.” In the paper, they explained, “judges cannot—nor should they try to—align our legal system with the Church’s moral teaching whenever the two diverge.”
“It turns out that the number of cases in which we thought an adherence to your moral principles would prevent you from deciding a case according to the law was much smaller than we imagined,” Garvey later said, according to The Atlantic.
During her confirmation hearing, Barrett pointed out that the paper was written 20 years ago and, as a student at the time, she was the junior author. She indicated that she wouldn’t write it exactly the same way today and added, “I continue to subscribe to the core argument of that article, which is that a judge may never subvert the law or twist it in any way to match the judge’s convictions.”
3. Barrett Has Said She believes Life Begins at Conception
While a professor at Notre Dame, Barrett was a member of a group called “University Faculty for Life” from 2010-2016, according to her Judiciary Committee questionnaire. That group’s mission statement starts, “University Faculty for Life was founded in 1989 to promote research, dialogue and publication by faculty who respect the value of human life from conception to natural death. Abortion, infanticide and euthanasia are highly controversial topics, but we believe they should not be resolved by the shouting, news bites and slogans that have dominated popular presentations. Because we believe the evidence is on our side, we would like to assure a hearing for our views in the academic community.”
In 2013, Notre Dame Magazine published an article by associate editor John Nagy on students and faculty marking “20 years of Roe.” How Barrett would decide abortion cases on the Supreme Court would be a focal point of any confirmation fight as liberals express concern that a more solidly conservative court could over turn Roe v. Wade.
The magazine article reports that “Barrett spoke both to her own conviction that life begins at conception and to the ‘high price of pregnancy’ and ‘burdens of parenthood’ that especially confront women before she asked her audience whether the clash of convictions inherent in the abortion debate is better resolved democratically.”
The article says Barrett gave a presentation called “Roe at 40: The Supreme Court, Abortion and the Culture War that Followed.”
The article continued: “By creating through judicial fiat a framework of abortion on demand in a political environment that was already liberalizing abortion regulations state-by-state, she said, the court’s concurrent rulings in Roe and Doe v. Bolton ‘ignited a national controversy.’ Barrett noted that scholars from both sides of the debate have criticized Roe for unnecessarily creating the political backlash known colloquially as ‘Roe Rage.'”
However, she said she thought it was “very unlikely” the court would ever overturn Roe and she “sees the political battle shifting toward matters of public and private funding,” according to the magazine.
4. Amy Barrett, Her Husband & Their Fathers Belong to a Religious Group Called ‘People of Praise,’ The New York Times Reported
Rhodes College alumna Amy Coney Barrett ‘94 is being considered to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy on the United States Supreme Court. Read more here: https://t.co/ZE0EzTZebO pic.twitter.com/JQSIuOvsdQ
— Rhodes College (@RhodesCollege) June 28, 2018
Amy Coney Barrett belongs to a “small, tightly knit Christian group called People of Praise,” The New York Times reported in September 2017. According to The Times, the group’s members “swear a lifelong oath of loyalty, called a covenant, to one another, and are assigned and are accountable to a personal adviser, called a ‘head’ for men and a ‘handmaid’ (now woman leader) for women. The group teaches that husbands are the heads of their wives and should take authority over the family.” The Times indicated that Amy Barrett’s family has deep ties to the group.
Amy Barrett’s dad Mike Coney is a deacon. “She is the eldest of seven children of Deacon Mike Coney, who is a permanent deacon assigned to St. Catherine of Siena Parish in Metairie, and his wife Linda. Amy attended St. Catherine of Siena School and graduated from St. Mary’s Dominican High School in 1990,” reported The Clarion Herald. Her father is an attorney.
The Times reports that members of the group take direction from the heads and handmaids (or woman leader) on major decisions, even down to whom they marry. According to the Times’ interviews with current and former members, Amy Barrett, her husband, and both of their fathers are members of the group. As noted, Amy Barrett’s father is named Michael Coney and he’s based in Louisiana.
Under this scenario, as Amy Barrett is married, her “head” would be Jesse Barrett, as a manuscript by a former People of Praise member explains that married women are advised by their spouse and single women by the handmaids (now women leaders). However, Jesse Barrett would also have a “head” within the church himself; the manuscript claims that confidentiality is not usually practiced within the church.
“Current and former members of People of Praise said that Ms. Barrett and her husband, who have seven children, both belong to the group, and that their fathers have served as leaders,” The Times reported.
A man named Mike Coney from New Orleans was elected to the People of Praise group’s Board of Directors in 2012. It appears from social media postings that Amy Barrett’s father and brother are both named Michael Coney. The Mike Coney who was a leader on the board of directors is the older Coney and is married to Linda, which is the name of Amy’s mother. You can see his photo here.
A post by People of Praise on Mike Coney says that he is a “husband, father, grandfather, deacon, lawyer and coordinator” who headed the People of Praise’s New Orleans branch for more than a decade. “Mike continues to serve on the community’s board of governors and as the coordinator responsible for the Biloxi, Mobile and Shreveport branches,” the post on the People of Praise website reads. He was described as showing leadership during Hurricane Katrina and opening his home to a family in need during another hurricane.
A man whose Twitter page identifies him as a member of the People of Praise wrote on Twitter in 2010, “+1 (equals 6 kids now) to the Jesse & Amy Barrett clan! Welcome, Juliet Jeanne! Praise God!”
In 2009, the same man wrote on Twitter, “dinner @ jesse & amy barrett’s last night…”
Heavy reached out to People of Praise and asked whether it’s true that Amy Barrett, her husband, and their fathers are members of People of Praise. “The People of Praise does not publicly disclose membership information. Members are free to speak publicly on their own behalf,” Sean Connelly, media contact for the community, responded.
Connelly provided Heavy with a “People of Praise fact sheet.”
He also provided the following statement:
The People of Praise is an ecumenical, charismatic, covenant community. Our model and inspiration is the first Christian community, a small band of disciples who ‘were of one heart and soul’ and ‘held all things in common.’ (Acts 4:33, 2:44).
A majority of People of Praise members are Catholic, and yet the People of Praise is not a Catholic group. We aim to be a witness to the unity Jesus desires for all his followers. Our membership includes not only Catholics but Lutherans, Anglicans, Methodists, Pentecostals and nondenominational Christians. What we share is a common baptism, a commitment to love one another and our teachings, which we hold in common.
Freedom of conscience is a key to our diversity. People of Praise members are always free to follow their consciences, as formed by the light of reason, experience and the teachings of their churches.
Regarding handmaids, the People of Praise has both male and female leaders. For many years, we referred to our female leaders as handmaids, following the use of the term by Mary, Jesus’s mother, who calls herself ‘the handmaid of the Lord,’ as reported in the Bible (Lk. 1:38). Recognizing that the meaning of this term has shifted dramatically in our culture in recent years, we no longer use the term handmaid to describe those women who are leaders in the People of Praise.
However, Professor Adrian Reimers, a former People of Praise member who wrote a manuscript about the organization, has raised concerns about the group, writing, “These pastoral systems are not harmless. Growing evidence, along with a proper understanding of their dynamics, suggests that these systems cripple community members psychologically, reducing them to fear and bondage rather than liberating them for the authentic freedom of sons and daughters of God.”
National Review notes that Cardinal Francis George once said, “In my acquaintance with the People of Praise, I have found men and women dedicated to God and eager to seek and do His divine will. They are shaped by love of Holy Scripture, prayer and community; and the Church’s mission is richer for their presence” and adds, “Pope Francis appointed one of its members as auxiliary bishop of Portland.”
Did the sect inspire Margaret Atwood’s famous book The Handmaid’s Tale? Even the author isn’t sure.
Atwood told Politico she wasn’t sure whether People of Praise helped inspire her book because her notes are at a university and she can’t get them due to coronavirus. “Unless I can go back into the clippings file, I hesitate to say anything specific,” she told Politico, which added that Atwood, when writing her book, “read news reports about women’s rights and religious fundamentalism, including a report about another charismatic Catholic group in New Jersey that used the term ‘Handmaiden.’” People of Praise no longer uses the term.
Vox reported that, in past interviews, Atwood has named People of Hope, “a different Catholic charismatic spinoff that calls women handmaids,” as the book’s inspiration after going through her archives in the past.
5. Some Conservatives Believe the Attention on Amy Barrett’s Religious Beliefs Is Unfair
National Review, in an article arguing that religious criticism of Barrett could amount to an unconstitutional religious test for SCOTUS, wrote, “she’s a role model for Christian professionals who are committed to excellence in their careers and to loving Christ, their families, and their neighbors.”
The Catholic League wrote an article challenging depictions of People of Praise as a cult and arguing Barrett is unfairly subjected to scrutiny for her Catholicism, writing, “Among other things, it operates interracial schools and camps, and provides for many family outings; members often travel together. Is it a Catholic fringe group? No, for if it were, Pope Francis would not have welcomed it in June: he celebrated with them, and others, the 50th anniversary of the Catholic charismatic renewal; the event drew over 30,000 people from 128 countries.”
The Catholic League article continues, “Praise for People publishes a magazine, V&B (Vine and Branches), that offers concrete proof that it is anything but a cult. The cover story of the Winter 2014 edition was called, ‘Looking at Marriage.'” The Catholic League says the group “was founded in 1971 in South Bend, Indiana. Today it has branches throughout North America and the Caribbean” and “aligns itself with ‘the Pentecostal movement or the charismatic renewal.’”
The group’s website describes itself as “an ecumenical, charismatic, covenant community. Our model and inspiration is the first Christian community, a small band of disciples who ‘were of one heart and soul’ and ‘held all things in common.’ (Acts 4:33, 2:44). We can be difficult for the public and the press to understand. In truth, we are a community that defies categories.”