Federal Judge Amy Coney Barrett, who is on Donald Trump’s short list of candidates to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the United States Supreme Court, belongs to a religious group known as the “People of Praise” that assigns advisers who were once called handmaids and heads to members, according to The New York Times, which interviewed current and former members of the organization.
A spokesperson for the People of Praise told Heavy the term handmaid was used by the group to mirror Mary, Jesus’s mother, calling herself “the handmaid of the Lord” in the Bible, but the group changed the term for female leaders because its meaning has shifted in culture.
Amy Coney Barrett, 48, is an Indiana-based judge who serves on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, a position to which she was nominated by Trump in 2017. You can read her Judiciary Committee questionnaire from when she was first nominated to the federal bench by Donald Trump here.
Here’s what you need to know about Amy Coney Barrett & the People of the Praise:
1. The People of Praise Assigned ‘Handmaids’ to Some Female Members, The Times Claims
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’ for women. The group teaches that husbands are the heads of their wives and should take authority over the family.” The group now calls handmaids women leaders instead, the newspaper reported.
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, employment choices, child raising, and where to live.
“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, adding, “The group believes in prophecy, speaking in tongues and divine healings, staples of Pentecostal churches that some Catholics have also adopted in a movement called charismatic renewal.”
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.
Craig Lent, a leader in the group, told The Times, “If and when members hold political offices, or judicial offices, or administrative offices, we would certainly not tell them how to discharge their responsibilities.” Amy Coney Barrett was a trustee of one of the group’s “Trinity” schools, according to The Times, which says there are signs that Barrett’s affiliation with the group has been downplayed.
The group’s founders include Dr. Paul DeCelles and Kevin Ranaghan.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
According to UK Daily Mail, “At least 10 members of Barrett’s family, not including their children, also belong to the group,” and the site confirms that the Mike Coney described above is Barrett’s dad. Of Barrett’s five sisters, at least three are closely involved in the group, Daily Mail reports. Her brother Michael was a “full-time worker” for the group, the site reports, noting that Coney’s dad lives on a block with other People of Praise families and her husband’s brother, Nathan Barrett, also belongs to the People of Praise. Amy Barrett’s mother was previously a “handmaid,” according to Daily Mail.
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.
2. Amy Coney Barrett Was Grilled on Her Faith During Her Nomination Hearing to the Appeals Court, Which Caused Controversy
Amy Coney Barrett is Catholic as are most, but not all, members of People of Praise. In 2017, U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California) caused controversy when Barrett was nominated to the federal appellate court by bringing up her Catholic religion and saying she was concerned “the dogma lives loudly within you.”
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?”
An article in the People of Praise group’s magazine once reported that Barrett and her husband had adopted a child but articles mentioning her have been removed, according to The Times. 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…”
According to National Review, Amy Coney Barrett is considered a devout Catholic. She is also the mother of seven children with Jesse Barrett, her husband, who serves as a federal prosecutor in Indiana for the U.S. Department of Justice. “…she speaks about God as if she really believes in His existence,” the conservative website National Review reported of Barrett’s faith.
You can see photos of Jesse Barrett at his wife’s investiture.
3. Some Catholic & Conservative Organizations Think the Focus on People of Praise is Misleading & Unfair
Criticizing Barrett for the People of the Praise is considered unfair by some.
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.’”
According to The Federalist, which also believes concerns about the group are unfair, “It is perhaps worth noting that Pope Francis named a member of this group auxiliary bishop of Portland in 2014, so membership in the group must not be disqualifying in the eyes of the Vatican.”
4. The Group Describes Itself as a ‘Charismatic, Covenant Community’ That Is Modeled on the Disciples
The group’s website describes it 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.”
The website describes the group’s missionary work and says it’s open to more than Catholics. “In Evansville, IN, a group of People of Praise missionaries moved into two houses at a notorious intersection, a place locals called ‘the devil’s corner’ because of all the fights and drug deals. We didn’t arrive with any program or magic formula, but hoped to encounter neighbors in a spirit of Christian friendship,” the site explained. The group claims the covenant is not an oath or vow.
The group further explains, “In recent years, the People of Praise is perhaps best known as the founder of Trinity Schools, three junior high/high schools, which between them have won eight Blue Ribbon awards from the U.S. Department of Education. For more than 35 years our schools have had a reputation for encouraging students to ask questions, engage in spirited dialogue and draw their own reasoned conclusions.”
The website says People of Praise “has some of its roots in the Pentecostal revival that grew from a group of of poor African Americans in Los Angeles, beginning in 1906. Those humble believers experienced a tremendous outpouring of the Holy Spirit and a renewal of spiritual gifts like speaking in tongues. They were ridiculed in the press…” The site continues, “The People of Praise also has roots in the Cursillo, an evangelistic movement founded in Spain by Catholic laymen in the 1940s, which spread to Mexico and the United States, influencing some of our founding members. In 1971, after nearly seven years spent praying and studying the Bible and the teachings of the Church Fathers, 29 people made a covenant commitment to put their lives and their futures in common. The People of Praise was born.”
As for the covenant, the site explains, “After a long period of prayer and discernment, many People of Praise members choose to make a lifelong commitment called a covenant. The covenant of the People of Praise is a promise of love and service to fellow community members and to God.”
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.”
5. One Former Member Has Called Pastoral Systems Like People of Praise ‘Not Harmless’ & Says They Subvert Female Equality
Notre Dame Philosophy Professor Adrian J. Reimers wrote about his experiences with People of Praise in a manuscript available online that is called “Not Reliable Guides.” He explains in it, “For the previous twelve years I had belonged to the People of Praise, a covenant community in South Bend, Indiana. Together with about 1,000 other people I had taken a solemn commitment to form with them a Christian community, in which we would find the essential core of our life in the Spirit.”
He explained that he was dismissed from the group after beginning to question it and describes how a South Bend parish priest “worried about some of the teachings and practices of that community, especially those pertaining to marriage and the role of women” but didn’t find a receptive audience when he reached out to the leaders of People of Praise. He also claimed that a leader of the group attributed some members leaving to a “quitting spirit” demon.
Reimers wrote that the covenant is similar to a marriage and family relationship. Reimers explained in the manuscript, “The form that worship typically takes in the People of Praise gatherings is that of a well-regulated charismatic prayer meeting. That is, songs, spontaneous prayer in English, prayer in tongues and singing in tongues, as well as charismatic gifts are woven together under the direction of the leader (always a coordinator). For the individual member, this is ordinarily vocal spontaneous prayer.”
He explained that the group assigns “a personal head to each member, except married women, who are pastored or ‘headed’ by their husbands…As ‘head’ of his wife, the husband is regarded as her pastor,” which he argues “subverts the basic equality that exists between husband and wife.” He noted that the husband has to answer to his own “head” and what people tell the head is not confidential. He concluded, “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.”
Another former member wrote on a blog, “I was a member of what the group calls the campus division – a section of the POP that is composed of mostly, but not exclusively, college students. The campus division carries out evangelism and citybuilding work of the POP. That’s right, citybuilding. The POP believes the Lord Jesus Christ has called the community to build 200 cities and recruit 200,000 members in the next 40 years.”
The comment thread at the bottom of the blog post has various accounts from people who say they were in the group. One poster wrote, “DONT JOIN! I grew up in this. RUN! I am in therapy because of what it did to me as a kid.” However, another person who posted wrote, “I grew up in it as well, my family is in the northern Virginia branch. what do you mean u are in therapy?! the build homes for people who dont have them and help each other out in so many ways with nothing to ask in return. they have summer camps and there is NOTHING you are forced to do that could be considered even remotely traumatizing.”
A woman wrote on the thread, “Our family was ‘excommunicated’ and all of the friends my parents had from this group were told not to associate with us any longer. People who were dear to my family were no longer allowed to even talk to us. While we were part of this group in the 70’s and early 80’s, my parents and family were basically told where to live, how to live and who we could associate with. The final straw was when my oldest sister was told she could not marry a young man that was also in the community because the ‘leaders’ did not agree with the union.” Another woman wrote, “…it was a ‘covenant community’. My parents lost their identities, submitting to the ‘heads’ for advice on all details of how they lived their life.”
Yet another comment writer defended the group, though, writing, “The POP is full of people who care for one another, often giving members a feeling of being part of a family, I’d like to ask how that is a bad thing?” However, a male comment writer, wrote, “the POP is absolutely a cult. i grew up in it. men are given the leadership roles and call all the shots while women in position of ‘power’ are called ‘handmaids.’ people give them money and time and invest their entire life into this organization. my parents have been completely brain washed by these people.”