As U.S. Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s name has emerged atop a list of possible replacements for the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court, her long affiliation with a small, Charismatic Christian community in Indiana has drawn fresh attention – in part due to the group’s historical use of the term “handmaid” to describe its female members.
The ecumenical organization, People of Praise, has fought to distance itself from comparisons to the oppressive fictional religious order in the Margaret Atwood book and television adaptation, "The Handmaid’s Tale." But to Andrew Seidel, a constitutional attorney with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the symbolic comparisons to Atwood's dystopian narrative invite real and important questions.
“There are serious and deep concerns about Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s affiliation with People of Praise and her past comments about the conflict between faith and law,” Seidel said. “Not only is her connection to this community and her previous writings fair to ask about, but senators have a duty to the constitution to ask those questions.”
Barrett is a devout Catholic and favorite of conservative Christians. She faced scrutiny for her past writings and public comments during a testy 2017 confirmation hearing for her nomination to the Chicago-based 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. But this time around, it is her association with People of Praise that is commandeering headlines ahead of her possible nomination to the high court.
The group is described on its website as a “charismatic Christian community,” which typically refers to adherents that have borrowed from Pentecostal practices, like speaking in tongues, prophesying and praying for divine healings. The group encourages its more than 1,700 members to make a covenant to the community, and it also assigns younger members a personal mentor, known as a “head” or “leader.” Until recently, women in those roles were referred to as “handmaids.”
Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., distributed a press release on Tuesday calling criticism of the group nothing more than “ugly smears” that reflect “anti-Catholic bigotry.” Sasse referred to the group as “basically a Bible study.”
Vice President Mike Pence told ABC News Wednesday that he considers Barrett’s strong religious values an asset, rather than a liability, and said objections are evidence that some are harboring “intolerance … about her Catholic faith.”
“Judge Barrett, and other judges currently under consideration, we have every confidence are exactly the kind of jurists that the president has appointed from early in this administration,” said Pence, who was the governor of Indiana prior to becoming vice president. “It's been men and women who are committed to upholding the constitution, applying laws as written and serving in a manner consistent with the late and great Justice Antonin Scalia.”
Barrett, 48, has not spoken publicly about her involvement in People of Praise, and an aide to Barrett would not comment on her current status with the organization. But a former member confirmed to ABC News that she had been a member, and publicly available documents support the claim – though it is unclear whether she still participates today. A spokesperson for the group said it “leaves it up to its members to decide whether to publicly disclose their involvement in our community.”
Since at least 2006, Barrett and her family have garnered occasional mentions in issues of the group’s quarterly publication, called Vine & Branches. In one issue, which was later pulled off the internet, Barrett’s photograph appeared as part of an article about the organization’s Leaders Conference for Women. Between 2010 and 2012, three references to the birth of her children are included in members’ updates. And in a 2017 congressional questionnaire, Barrett listed herself as a trustee for the Trinity School, the organization’s educational program.
Bob Byrne, a former member of People of Praise, also confirmed Barrett’s connection to the group. He said he left the organization on “completely amicable” terms in 2008, when his work as a Deacon in a nearby town absorbed too much of his time and attention to remain active in the community.
Byrne said he did not know Barrett well, but based on limited interactions found her “quite impressive” and “a very fine woman.” He described her role in the community as any other member, often taking on daily tasks and participating in events hosted by the group.
“I remember one day when I was [at her parish],” Byrne said, “[Barrett’s] task for the day was to take the young kids out and do Bible lessons with them while the adults attended mass. And I said, ‘Wow, wow’ – here is this lady, she’s a law instructor and she’s doing the task of just being a mom. Quite impressive.”
Questions of a covenant and the law
Scrutiny of the group has largely involved reports that it encourages members to make a covenant to the community, which it describes as “a promise of love and service we choose to make to one another.” The group claims it does not force members into the covenant and is clear that it is “not an oath or a vow.”
Seidel, the Freedom From Religion Foundation lawyer, said any statement of loyalty to the organization -- and possible covenant with its members -- could threaten to supersede her oath to uphold the Constitution.
“How does the covenant interact with the oath that all justices take to uphold the constitution as the supreme law of the land? We need to know that,” he said.
When the New York Times first reported on Barrett’s affiliation with the group in 2017 ahead of Barrett’s elevation to the federal appellate court, religious organizations objected to such questions. The Catholic League released a statement calling the report a “Catholic-baiting tactic” to cast doubt on Barrett’s fitness as a federal judge.
Beyond the specific group, Barrett’s Catholic faith emerged as a subject of question during her confirmation hearing for the appellate seat.
“Whatever a religion is, it has its own dogma. The law is totally different,” said California Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the committee’s ranking Democrat. “I think in your case, professor … the dogma lives loudly within you, and that is of concern.”
Feinstein’s comments drew rebukes from religious freedom groups. Her phrase, “the dogma lives loudly within you,” has since made its way onto tee shirts and mugs for sale on the internet.
Nelson Tebbe, a law professor at Cornell University, said Feinstein’s line of questioning went too far, but demonstrates the dilemma senators face in asking judicial nominees about legitimate issues involving faith over secular law.
“The toughest question is, what can senators ask about? Because the line between legitimate probing of a potential justice’s willingness to adhere to the law, on the one hand, and on the other hand, expressions of religious prejudice -- it’s just hard to draw that line,” Tebbe said.
At the time of her 2017 confirmation, Barrett assured Senators that her faith would have no bearing on her jurisprudence, despite advocating in a 1998 scholarly article for Catholic judges to recuse themselves from death penalty cases, citing the “the moral impossibility of enforcing capital punishment.”
“I see no conflict between having a sincerely held faith and duties as a judge,” Barrett told the Senate panel. “I would never impose my own personal convictions upon the law.”
During her confirmation, Barrett walked back her position on the death penalty, telling senators that she would not recuse “as a blanket matter” from death penalty cases. On abortion, she stood by past comments that “abortion … is always immoral,” but added that, if confirmed, her “views on this or any other question will have no bearing on the discharge of [her] duties as a judge.”
For its part, People of Praise denies that its practices would have any effect on a member’s professional life.
“Each person is always responsible for his or her own decisions, including decisions in their careers, and no community member should ever violate his or her conscience,” a spokesperson for the group told ABC News.
Former use of 'handmaid' raises eyebrows, group denies link to book
As People of Praise has come more into focus, so too have some of its other practices, chief among them the historical use of the term "handmaid" to mean a female "trusted confidant." The term is no longer in use, according to the organization’s website.
In 2005, one edition of the group’s magazine, Vine & Branches, described Barrett’s mother, Linda, as a “handmaid.”
The reference to “handmaids” has led some news outlets and commentators to speculate that People of Praise may have been the inspiration behind Margaret Atwood’s famous novel, “The Handmaid’s Tale.” In a 1986 New York Times Book Review interview, Atwood said when describing the book: "There is a sect now, a Catholic charismatic spinoff sect, which calls the women handmaids.”
Seidel said he believes the symbolic parallels between Atwood’s book and People of Praise will resonate with religious freedom advocates. The Trump administration has already moved the country toward a “theocratic religious authoritarianism” like the fictional country described in the book, Seidel said, and “a nominee like Amy Coney Barrett reinforces all of those fears.”
People of Praise vehemently denies such connections, stating explicitly on its website that “The People of Praise community was not the inspiration for Ms. Atwood’s work!” The group explains that the term “handmaid” was a Biblical reference, but “recognizing that the meaning of this term has shifted dramatically in our culture in recent years, we no longer use the term.”
Reached for comment by ABC News, Atwood said there were multiple “major influences on the book” and said short of explicit evidence in her notes, she “would hesitate to say anything specific.”
“I certainly did not confine myself to one sect or group,” she said. “So I don't think this is a thread that can be legitimately used in this way.”
ABC News' Arielle Mitropoulos contributed reporting.
This report was featured in the Friday, Sept. 25, 2020, episode of “Start Here,” ABC News’ daily news podcast.
"Start Here" offers a straightforward look at the day's top stories in 20 minutes. Listen for free every weekday on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, the ABC News app or wherever you get your podcasts.