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Fact Check: What You Need To Know About SCOTUS Nominee Amy Coney Barrett’s Faith – Is She a Member of a Christian Cult?

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Amy Coney Barrett testifies at her confirmation hearing in 2017. Photo: Wikipedia Commons

Editor’s note: The following article was reprinted with permission from ReligionUnplugged.com.

By Clemente Lisi

President Donald Trump has nominated Amy Coney Barrett to replace the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, The New York Times reported Friday, kicking off what will be a furious scramble to confirm her before Election Day.

Should Barrett be confirmed by the Senate, it would represent a third Trump appointment to the Supreme Court. It would also give the Supreme Court a solid 6-3 conservative majority.

The nomination — taking place just weeks before the Nov. 3 presidential election — has already triggered a partisan tug-of-war between Republicans and Democrats. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has pledged to hold a vote, leaving Democrats with very few options to halt it. In retaliation, Democrats have threatened to pack the Supreme Court with as many as 15 members (from the current nine) should Joe Biden win the race and his party gain a Senate majority in 2021.

Barrett, 48, currently serves on the Seventh Circuit in Chicago, a position she attained after being nominated to the bench by Trump. Barrett, who also teaches at Notre Dame Law School, was one of Trump’s finalists for the Supreme Court two years ago, but he instead went with Brett Kavanaugh.

As Election Day draws near, both the Trump and Biden campaigns have made appeals to communities of faith — particularly Catholic voters in the Rust Belt states of Ohio and Pennsylvania — by highlighting issues they believe resonate with them. In Pennsylvania, Biden has seen his lead widen in recent weeks. It remains a key battleground state with a very large Catholic voting bloc that Trump needs to win.

Overall, Catholics, according to recent polling, favor Biden — but traditional Catholics do plan to join evangelicals and vote for the president. Trump’s pick will certainly serve as an overture to faith voters like evangelicals and a segment of white Catholics who tend to be politically conservative.

With religion so crucial to this campaign season, here are three things you need to know about Barrett’s faith:

WHAT IS BARRETT’S FAITH TRADITION?

Hailed by conservatives and feared by progressives, Barrett is a Roman Catholic. She and her husband, Jesse Barrett, a former prosecutor, have seven children, including two adopted from Haiti and one with Down’s syndrome. It should be noted that the there are already six justices on the Supreme Court who are Catholic, including Kavanaugh.

Barrett’s faith came under scrutiny after Trump nominated her to a federal court post in 2017. At the time, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, told Barrett her views suggested religious tenets would influence her thinking on the law.

“The conclusion one draws is that the dogma lives loudly within you,” she said. “And that’s of concern.”

She responded by saying federal judges shouldn’t “follow their personal convictions in the decision of a case.”

Barrett was also called to defend the term “orthodox Catholic” by Illinois Sen. Dick Durban during that same confirmation process. Asked if she would call herself that, Barrett clarified that the term, saying it isn’t actually used to describe any members of the Roman Catholic faith.

I am a Catholic, Senator Durbin. I don’t—well, orthodox Catholic, we kind of—as I said, in that article, we just kind of used that as a proxy. It is not, to my knowledge, you know, a term currently in use. But if you’re asking whether I take my faith seriously and I’m a faithful Catholic, I am, although I would stress that my personal church affiliation or my religious belief would not bear in the discharge of my duties as a judge.

The Senate eventually confirmed Barrett in a 55-43 vote — with three Democrats breaking ranks. Expect Barrett’s faith to once again become an issue. These potential attacks could put Biden, who is also Catholic, on the side of those who think Barrett’s beliefs are extreme.

WHAT IS HER STANCE ON ABORTION?  

Abortion remains the biggest issue when it comes to the Supreme Court. It was in 2013 that Barrett, according to Notre Dame Magazine, said “life begins at conception.” She has also said that Supreme Court justices should not be bound by precedent — a judicial philosophy known as “originalist” — leaving open the possibility that Roe v. Wade could be overturned should she end up on the Supreme Court.

Two decades ago, Barrett clerked for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in 2016, after graduating from Notre Dame Law School. She shares Scalia’s judicial philosophy and, as progressives fear, rule similarly to him should she sit on the Court.

In a 2017 White House questionnaire, Barrett was asked if it was her view that abortion was always immoral. She didn’t answer the question directly but wrote: “If I am confirmed (to the appeals court), my views on this or any other question will have no bearing on the discharge of my duties as a judge.”

Last year, during an appearance at Hillsdale College, Barrett addressed both her faith and her ability to interpret the law:

“I think when you step back and you think about the debate about whether someone’s religion has any bearing on their fitness for office, it seems to me that the premise of the question is that people of faith would have a uniquely difficult time separating out their moral commitments from their obligation to apply the law. I think people of faith should reject that premise.”

IS SHE REALLY A MEMBER OF A CHRISTIAN CULT?

Barrett’s faith was trending on Twitter this week amid mounting speculation she was the frontrunner to be the nominee, putting the spotlight on a group known as Praise of People.

The New York Times reported in 2017 that Barrett she was a part of this little-known religious community, citing unnamed current and former members.

People of Praise (PoP) Christian Community, described an ecumenical group that’s part of the charismatic renewal movement, has 1,700 members in 22 cities across North America, according to the group’s website. It was founded in 1971 in South Bend, Indiana, where Notre Dame’s campus is located.

“We admire the first Christians who were led by the Holy Spirit to form a community,” the website says, adding that it highlights the “renewal of Christian enthusiasm and fervor, together with charismatic gifts such as speaking in tongues and physical healing.”

Religion News Service reported that people in the group get spiritual guidance from other members, something referred to as “headship.” A married woman’s head, for example, is her husband. In the past, these leaders were called “handmaids” — a reference, RNS reported, to the Virgin Mary who called herself “handmaid of the Lord” in Luke’s Gospel.

While outlets like Newsweek reported this week that the group inspired The Handmaid’s Tale, the magazine subsequently ran this correction at the bottom of the story:

“This article’s headline originally stated that People of Praise inspired ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’. The book’s author, Margaret Atwood, has never specifically mentioned the group as being the inspiration for her work. A New Yorker profile of the author from 2017 mentions a newspaper clipping as part of her research for the book of a different charismatic Catholic group, People of Hope.”

Nonetheless, this was an assertion repeated by Reuters and later edited. It should be noted that Pope Francis deemed PoP legit, as Peggy Noonan pointed out Thursday in a Wall Street Journal column.

Misconceptions about the group were also put forth by piece by Massimo Faggioli in Politico.  The Villanova theology professor also gave Democratic lawmakers cover for when they do decide to probe Barrett’s connection to PoP.

“I’m a Catholic scholar, I’ve written two books on the type of religious community that Barrett is a member of, and I don’t think it’s anti-Catholic to ask questions about Barrett’s religious beliefs. On the contrary, as the president nears a decision on her potential nomination later this week, I’m convinced they need to be front and center.”

In opposition to the column, the New York Post’s Sohrab Ahmari wrote a detailed piece clearing up some of these misconceptions.

“Witness Villanova professor Massimo Faggioli’s flatulent hit piece published at Politico Thursday. Faggioli charges Barrett with membership in a ‘Christian group with a highly authoritarian internal structure.’ This, he argues, means interrogating her religious faith is within bounds in a potential confirmation battle.

Never mind that the US Constitution bars such interrogation (‘no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States’). It’s harder still to take Faggioli seriously when he makes three basic factual errors in a short piece.”

Expect more of this to come during confirmation hearings as Barrett’s political opponents hope to punch holes in her nomination despite the fact that Republicans currently have the votes to ultimately confirm her. After what has already been a tough year because of the virus and civil unrest, expect the final stretch to Election Day to be loaded with more political division and bitter partisanship.

Clemente Lisi is a senior editor and regular contributor to Religion Unplugged. He is the former deputy head of news at the New York Daily News and teaches journalism at The King’s College in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @ClementeLisi.