Amy Coney Barrett Was Reportedly a 'Handmaid' in a Controversial Christian Group

She has avoided speaking publicly about her involvement in People of Praise, a Christian community that's faced criticism for espousing deeply traditional values about women's roles. 
October 7, 2020, 7:14pm
Supreme Court nominee Judge Amy Coney Barrett listens as Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Ks., not shown, speaks during their meeting on Capitol Hill, Thursday, Oct. 1, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta, POOL)

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Judge Amy Coney Barrett, President Donald Trump’s pick to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court, has so far avoided speaking publicly about her involvement in People of Praise, a Christian community that’s faced criticism for espousing deeply traditional values about women’s roles.

Evidence continues to mount, however, that Barrett not only belonged to the group but has strong ties to its founders and even served as a leader within it—drawing questions about how the group’s beliefs could impact her rulings on the Supreme Court.

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Barrett had served as a “handmaid,” a leadership position for women in the group, the Washington Post reported Tuesday. During law school, she also once lived in the home of one of People of Praise’s founders, the Guardian reported just hours earlier.

People of Praise, which started in the 1970s and is based in South Bend, Indiana, is technically an ecumenical group. The organization draws some of its worship practices from the Pentecostal faith, such as speaking in tongues and faith healing, but the vast majority of its members are Catholic.

Members of the group make what are known as lifelong “covenants,” a kind of vow to other members of the community and to God. They pledge to tithe at least 5% of their gross income to the group, according to the Associated Press. Members also receive an advisor who helps them navigate life decisions, including romantic and financial questions.

If Barrett—a 48-year-old mother of seven and openly Catholic—is confirmed to the Supreme Court, she will cement a 6-3 conservative majority on the bench that will likely last for years. Abortion rights supporters are particularly worried that she would help overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion nationwide.

Barrett has repeatedly indicated that she personally opposes abortion. But she has said that judges “must apply the law as written.”

“Judges are not policy makers, and they must be resolute in setting aside any policy views they might hold,” she said at a September ceremony where Trump introduced her nomination.

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In People of Praise, men can become “heads” while women can become “women leaders.” These women were previously known as “handmaids,” but People of Praise changed that in 2017, after Margaret Atwood’s book “The Handmaid’s Tale”—which is about a dystopian, theofascist society that subjugates women—was adapted into a TV show.

The Post obtained a copy of a 2010 directory that listed Barrett as one of three handmaids in the northwest South Bend area.

Former People of Praise members told the Post that these “women leaders” are not granted the same authority as male “heads.” One person who’d been raised in People of Praise told the Washington Post that she was told to never better men in conversation, because that would “emasculate” them.

“I was made aware of the difference from a young age,” the person, who spoke anonymously to avoid retaliation for loved ones, told the Post. “I was aware that it would have been better if I had been born a boy.”

Ex-members also told the Associated Press last month that the group expects wives to be submissive to their husbands. One 2015 issue of People of Praise’s magazine included an article based on a talk given to women in the 1980s by Jeane DeCelles, the wife of a co-founder, according to the Washington Post.

DeCelles told the women to “make it a joy for him to head you,” the Post reported.

“It is important for you to verbalize your commitment to submission,” she continued, adding, “Tell him what you think about things, make your input, but let him make the decisions and support them once they are made.”

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Sean Connolly, a People of Praise spokesperson, told the Post that the group values independent thinking and “recognizes that men and women share a fundamental equality as bearers of God’s image and sons and daughters of God.”

Barrett previously lived in a nine-bedroom South Bend residence owned by Kevin Ranaghan, who co-founded People of Praise, the Guardian reported. Her current husband, Jesse, a federal prosecutor who’s now entered private practice, also lived in the residence at some point; Barrett has previously said that she met Jesse while she was in law school.

Dorothy Ranaghan, Kevin Ranaghan’s wife, confirmed to the Guardian that Barrett had lived in the couple’s home. Dorothy was also the author of a 1991 essay that emphasized the “basic differences between men and women,” such as wives’ roles as homemakers, and criticized a Girl Scouts magazine for “overly aggressive idealization of girls and women,” according to the Post. (The essay also said that a wife should be considered “a full and free human person.”)

People of Praise has not confirmed that Barrett is or was a member of the group. Since 2017, when Barrett was confirmed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, the community has repeatedly scrubbed mentions of Barrett and her family from its website records, the Associated Press reported last week.

“Recent changes to our website were made in consultation with members and nonmembers from around the country who raised concerns about their and their families’ privacy due to heightened media attention,” Connolly told the Associated Press.

When the Post reached out to the White House for comment, a spokesperson called its questions offensive. The White House declined to comment to the Guardian.

Barrett has recently faced questions for once supporting a group that wants to criminalize abortion providers. She also signed onto a 2015 letter that highlighted “the significance of sexual difference and the complementarity of men and women.”

Although several top members of the White House and Senate have now tested positive for the coronavirus, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has vowed to get her a vote on the Senate floor.