Amy Coney Barrett, a judge for the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago, has emerged as one of the top three candidates to replace Anthony Kennedy on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Barrett, 46, would almost certainly be a very conservative justice, based in part on her strong Roman Catholic faith. But some liberal-leaning pundits and groups are keying in on a specific reason for concern: her membership in a small religious group called “People of Praise,” which has received support from late Chicago Cardinal Francis George.
Here are six things to know about Barrett and her ties to that group:
1. People of Praise’s beginnings
In 1971, 29 people in South Bend, Indiana — many of them associated with the University of Notre Dame, where Barrett would later study and teach law — founded People of Praise. They were part of the so-called “Charismatic Renewal” in Catholicism, which adopted some Pentecostal traditions, including divine healing and speaking in tongues, into Catholic worship, according to the group’s website.
2. Barrett’s contentious confirmation
During Senate confirmation hearings in fall 2017 for Barrett’s appellate court seat, Democratic senators questioned whether she could set aside her religious convictions on the bench, especially in light of a 1998 law review article in which she and her co-author weighed when Catholic judges should recuse themselves in cases involving the death penalty. In the end, Republicans accused Democrats of implicitly endorsing an unconstitutional religious test for public office, and Barrett was comfortably confirmed with the support of every Republican senator and three Democrats.
Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) questions Barrett on her Catholic faith and whether it would influence her decisions on the court. Source: CSPAN
3. Heads and handmaidens
After the hearings, The New York Times reported that several current and former People of Praise members said Barrett belonged to the group, which doesn’t formally disclose its members. The story quoted legal scholars concerned that her membership would interfere with her independence on the bench. The Times stated that “a life-long oath of loyalty” was adhered to by members of the group, which also assigned each member a “head” for male members or “woman leader,” once known as a “handmaiden,” for female members. Some Barrett critics have used these terms to portray the group as a cult.
4. People of Praise responds
After the Times story appeared, People of Praise explained on its website that it asks its members to participate in a “covenant,” not an oath, and that they can choose to leave the group if they wish. The term “handmaiden” — coined long before Margret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” made the term synonymous with female subjugation — comes from a Biblical verse and connotes a position as a lay spiritual director.
While not directly acknowledging Barrett’s membership, the group did address questions about whether a member would be able to act independently. “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,” wrote Sean Connolly, the group’s communications director. He later added, “We may not always be easy to understand, but that’s OK with us.”
5. Today’s Praise
People of Praise’s roughly 2,000 members are mostly Catholic, but the group is open to Christians of other denominations, according to its website. Members donate five percent of their income to the group, and they tend to try to live near each other. They operate mission organizations and three combined junior high-high schools in Indiana, Virginia and Minnesota.
6. A Chicago Connection
Cardinal Francis George, Chicago’s archbishop from 1997 to 2014, prominently supported the group. When George was a bishop in the Pacific Northwest, he helped a group of men become priests associated with People of Praise — a process complicated by People of Praise including Protestants. “What you want to do is from the Holy Spirit. You have something to tell the Church,” George once said of the group, according to a story Connolly wrote on the religious website Patheos.