Sep 29, 2017

Some Worry About Judicial Nominee's Ties to a Religious Group

New York Times
SEPTEMBER 28, 2017

One of President Trump’s judicial nominees became something of a hero to religious conservatives after she was grilled at a Senate hearing this month over whether her Roman Catholic faith would influence her decisions on the bench.

The nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, a law professor up for an appeals court seat, had raised the issue herself in articles and speeches over the years. The Democratic senators on the Judiciary Committee zeroed in on her writings, and in the process prompted accusations that they were engaged in religious bigotry.

“The dogma lives loudly within you,” declared Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, in what has become an infamous phrase. Senator Orrin Hatch, Republican of Utah, accused his colleagues of employing an unconstitutional “religious test” for office.

Ms. Barrett told the senators that she was a faithful Catholic, and that her religious beliefs would not affect her decisions as an appellate judge. But her membership in a small, tightly knit Christian group called People of Praise never came up at the hearing, and might have led to even more intense questioning.

Some of the group’s practices would surprise many faithful Catholics. Members of the group 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.

Current and former members say that the heads and handmaids give direction on important decisions, including whom to date or marry, where to live, whether to take a job or buy a home, and how to raise children.

Legal scholars said that such loyalty oaths could raise legitimate questions about a judicial nominee’s independence and impartiality. The scholars said in interviews that while there certainly was no religious test for office, it would have been relevant for the senators to examine what it means for a judicial nominee to make an oath to a group that could wield significant authority over its members’ lives.

“These groups can become so absorbing that it’s difficult for a person to retain individual judgment,” said Sarah Barringer Gordon, a professor of constitutional law and history at the University of Pennsylvania. “I don’t think it’s discriminatory or hostile to religion to want to learn more” about her relationship with the group.

Ms. Barrett, through a spokesman at the Notre Dame Law School, where she is on the faculty, declined several requests to be interviewed for this article.

A leader of the People of Praise, Craig S. Lent, said that the group was not “nefarious or controversial,” but that its policy was not to confirm whether Ms. Barrett or anyone else was a member. Mr. Lent, whose title is overall coordinator and who has belonged to the group for nearly 40 years, said in interviews that the group was about building community and long-term friendships, and that members have a “wide spectrum” of political views.

“We don’t try to control people,” said Mr. Lent, who is also a professor of electrical engineering and physics at Notre Dame. “And there’s never any guarantee that the leader is always right. You have to discern and act in the Lord.”

He later added, “If and when members hold political offices, or judicial offices, or administrative offices, we would certainly not tell them how to discharge their responsibilities.”

By all accounts, Ms. Barrett appears headed for confirmation to the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Chicago, a post one rung below the Supreme Court. She is often mentioned as a potential candidate for the high court, especially if Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg were to retire.

Ms. Barrett, 45, has never served in the judiciary but has won praise for her legal credentials. A law clerk for Justice Antonin Scalia, she was hired at 30 at Notre Dame Law School.

She is a member of the conservative Federalist Society, a conduit for judicial nominees to the Trump White House. More than 70 law professors across the country signed a glowing letter of endorsement. A separate letter of endorsement was signed by all of her fellow faculty members.

The sight of Democratic senators grilling Ms. Barrett only elevated her profile. A conservative judicial group began running digital ads targeting Senator Feinstein. Cheeky T-shirts and coffee mugs soon appeared for sale emblazoned with Senator Feinstein’s remark about dogma.

Ms. Barrett was questioned in particular about a 1998 scholarly article in which she and her co-author argued that sometimes Catholic trial judges should recuse themselves from the sentencing phase of death penalty cases. At the hearing, Ms. Barrett backed away from that position, saying she could not think of any class of cases in which she would recuse herself because of her faith.

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 community, founded in 1971, claims about 1,800 adult members in 22 locations in North America and the Caribbean.

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. The People of Praise was an early leader in the flowering of that movement in North America. It is ecumenical, but about 90 percent of its members are Catholic.

To fulfill the group’s communitarian vision, unmarried members are sometimes placed to live in homes with married couples and their children, and members often look to buy or rent homes near other members.

Some former members criticize the group for deviating from Catholic doctrine, which does not teach “male headship,” in contrast to some evangelical churches. The personal advisers can be too controlling, the critics say; they may betray confidences, and too often they supplant the role of priest.

Mr. Lent said the group’s system of heads and handmaids promotes “brotherhood,” not male dominance. He said the group recently dropped the term “handmaid” in favor of “woman leader.”

“We follow the New Testament pattern of asking men to take on some spiritual responsibility for their families,” he said.

Adrian J. Reimers, a professor of philosophy at Notre Dame, was one of the founding members of the People of Praise, but he was ejected 13 years later after he said he increasingly questioned the leaders’ authority over members’ lives and deviation from Catholic doctrine. He later wrote a critical manuscript, “Not Reliable Guides.”

Mr. Reimers said in an interview that the breaking point came after he objected to instructions a handmaid had given to his wife. When he took his concerns to his head, he said he was told that his wife was “trying to undermine God’s plan for her life” and that the couple should follow the handmaid’s guidance.

There are some indications that both Ms. Barrett and the People of Praise may have tried to obscure Ms. Barrett’s membership in the group.

Links to issues of the group’s magazine, Vine & Branches, that mentioned her have disappeared from its website, some of them very recently. One included an announcement that Ms. Barrett and her husband had adopted a child; another had a photograph of Ms. Barrett attending a women’s gathering.

A spokesman for People of Praise, Sean Connolly, said the group was sometimes asked by members to remove links to articles about them, but he would not say whether that had happened in this case. Mr. Lent said he was unaware of any such request concerning Ms. Barrett.

Every nominee for the federal bench is required to fill out a detailed questionnaire for the Senate Judiciary Committee. Ms. Barrett did not list any religious affiliations on her questionnaire, though many nominees have in the past.

Administration officials said on Thursday that the White House has been advising all its judicial nominees that they need not list religious affiliations on their Senate questionnaires.

Ms. Barrett did, however, list that she was a trustee of Trinity School from 2015 to 2017, giving no further detail. Many schools have that name, but this one was founded and run by People of Praise, and trustees must be members. Mr. Lent confirmed that Ms. Barrett was indeed a Trinity trustee until very recently.

The Senate questionnaire also asks nominees to list their public speeches, and to supply the committee with recordings or texts. Ms. Barrett listed a Trinity School commencement address she gave on June 11, 2011, but according to a committee aide, she did not submit a copy of that speech.

“I’m concerned that this was not sufficiently transparent,” said M. Cathleen Kaveny, a professor at Boston College Law School who studies the relationship between law, religion and morality. “We have to disclose everything from the Elks Club to the alumni associations we belong to — why didn’t she disclose this?”

A version of this article appears in print on September 29, 2017, on Page A18 of the New York edition with the headline: Links to Religious Group Raise Issues for Nominee

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