Christian Group Is In The Spotlight Over Its Ties To A Supreme Court Front-Runner

Judge Amy Coney Barrett has been linked to People of Praise, a charismatic Christian community that used to call its female leaders "handmaids."

The reemergence of Judge Amy Coney Barrett as a top contender for the Supreme Court has renewed scrutiny of a religious organization she’s reported to have been involved with.

Barrett is widely considered to be a front-runner for the seat on the Supreme Court that became vacant after Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death on Friday. The 48-year-old judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, poised to become a reliably conservative voice on the nation’s highest court for decades to come, has described herself as a “faithful Catholic.”

Her religious identity is nothing new for the court ― in fact, five of the eight justices on the court now are Roman Catholics. (Two are Jewish, and one is Episcopalian.)

But in addition to belonging to the largest religious denomination in the country, Barrett also appears to have ties to People of Praise, a religious group that until recently referred to its female leaders as “handmaids” ― evoking comparisons to Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

After President Donald Trump nominated Barrett to the 7th Circuit in 2017, The New York Times published an article in which unnamed members of the group alleged that Barrett and her husband belonged to People of Praise. The article included a photograph, captured from a page of the group’s magazine, that showed Barrett attending a women’s gathering.

That photograph and other references to Barrett were scrubbed from People of Praise’s website, the Times reported in 2017.

In a questionnaire submitted to the Senate Judiciary Committee after her nomination, Barrett indicated that she had once been a trustee for a school run by People of Praise. Trustees of the school must be members, according to The Times.

People of Praise has declined to confirm or deny Barrett’s membership in the group.

“Like most religious communities, the People of Praise leaves it up to its members to decide whether to publicly disclose their involvement in our community,” Sean Connolly, the group’s communications director, told HuffPost.

Judge Amy Coney Barrett, a Roman Catholic, is a top contender for the Supreme Court following the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Judge Amy Coney Barrett, a Roman Catholic, is a top contender for the Supreme Court following the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Matt Cashore/Notre Dame University via Reuters

People of Praise describes itself as a “charismatic” Christian community, referring to a form of Christianity that believes that supernatural occurrences ― such as prophecy, miraculous healing and speaking in tongues ― can occur in people’s daily lives through the work of the Holy Spirit. These beliefs are most often associated with Pentecostal Christianity, but in the late 1960s, Catholics began adopting this form of spirituality as well.

People of Praise is one of many groups that emerged from this period. The group formed in 1971 in South Bend, Indiana, with the help of students and faculty associated with the University of Notre Dame. People of Praise now has about 1,700 members in 22 cities in the U.S., Canada and the Caribbean, according to the group’s website, along with several private religious schools, called Trinity Schools. Like other charismatic Catholics, members attend Mass in traditional churches but are also involved in prayer meetings outside of church. Though the group welcomes people from other Christian denominations, the majority of its members are Catholics.

The Vatican has been supportive of the charismatic movement within the church, with Pope Francis declaring in 2017 that it “fully belongs in the biblical tradition.” Although People of Praise is not officially recognized by the Vatican an as approved charismatic community, one member of the group has gone on to become an auxiliary bishop for the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon.

The aspect of People of Praise that has sparked interest in recent years is the way the community keeps members accountable to their faith commitments.

Photos of Amy Coney Barrett, a potential Supreme Court nominee, hang in the Hall of Fame of her alma mater Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee.
Photos of Amy Coney Barrett, a potential Supreme Court nominee, hang in the Hall of Fame of her alma mater Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee.
Karen Pulfer Focht / Reuters

People of Praise is a “covenant community,” which means that after a period of discernment, members make a commitment to “be there for one another for the long run, to support one another through thick and thin, through all of life’s seasons.” They pledge to give 5% of their annual income to the group, to follow common principles and to meet regularly for prayer and service projects. People of Praise claims this covenant resembles the permanent commitments made by nuns or monks who enter religious orders.

Each member of People of Praise is connected to a specific community leader, also known as a “head,” who acts as a guide, offering practical advice and spiritual mentorship. Heads are often consulted when members face important life decisions, such as dating, marriage, jobs and financial issues.

Within this community, married women’s “heads” are their husbands, according to the Religion News Service. Single women receive spiritual guidance from female leaders. Beginning in the 1970s, People of Praise used the term “handmaid” to refer to these leaders. The group claims the label comes from a Bible verse attributed to Mary, who submitted to the news that she would become pregnant with Jesus by calling herself “the handmaid of the Lord.”

But the label took on new significance in light of Atwood’s novel. In the novel, which imagines a dystopian America ruled by a Christian fundamentalist regime, “handmaids” are fertile women who are subjugated to ritual rape and forced to give birth to the children of their male masters. The novel was brought to life in the middle of the #MeToo movement through an award-winning TV series on the Hulu streaming service.

In a 1986 interview with The New York Times, Atwood said that she was inspired to write the novel after learning about a “Catholic charismatic spinoff sect” that called women “handmaids.” Atwood hasn’t specified which charismatic sect she was referring to.

People of Praise has stopped using the term to refer to female leaders because it recognized that the meaning has “shifted dramatically in our culture in recent years,” according to its website.

Connolly told HuffPost that “there has never been any evidence whatsoever to suggest that the People of Praise played a role in inspiring Margaret Atwood’s book.”

“There are no similarities whatsoever between a faith community that recognizes that men and women share a fundamental equality as bearers of God’s image and a fictional dystopia in which women are treated like property,” Connolly wrote in an email.

The group believes husbands shouldn’t be domineering and wives shouldn’t be servile, according to its website. “Heads” don’t make decisions for others, and people in the community have the freedom to follow their own consciences, the website says.

But some former members have said they experienced a rigid, controlling atmosphere when they were part of People of Praise, as well as shunning when they asked too many questions or left the community. One ex-member, Coral Anika Theill, told the National Catholic Reporter in 2018 that she remembers her five years in the group as a period of suffering under strict gender-role divisions.

One of the original members of People of Praise, Adrian Reimers, has criticized the group and other covenant communities for drifting away from the authority and work of the Roman Catholic Church and for creating cultures where women are encouraged to be subservient to their husbands, while men are expected to defer to their spiritual heads.

Asked to respond to these critiques, Connolly said that “we do not comment on individual stories.” Connolly also declined to say whether the group has taken any steps to investigate whether ex-members’ reports of an abusive environment had any validity.

People pay respects as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg lies in repose under the Portico at the top of the front steps of the U.S. Supreme Court building on Wednesday.
People pay respects as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg lies in repose under the Portico at the top of the front steps of the U.S. Supreme Court building on Wednesday.
Alex Brandon/Associated Press

Sharon Loftus, a judicial assistant for Barrett, told Reuters this week that the judge’s policy was not to give interviews or comments to the media.

After her nomination to the 7th Circuit, Barrett was grilled by Democratic senators on the Judiciary Committee about whether her religious views would influence her legal decisions. Barrett said she agreed judges shouldn’t “follow their personal convictions in the decision of a case, rather than what the law requires.”

This line of questioning infuriated Republicans on the committee, who claimed it amounted to a “religious test” for office.

Trump is expected to announce his new Supreme Court nominee on Saturday.

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