WASHINGTON - Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett’s affiliation with the Christian community People of Praise is drawing scrutiny because of what former members and observers describe as its ultraconservative views on women. Her defenders say scrutinizing her beliefs and relationship to the mostly Catholic organization is akin to anti-religious bigotry.
But in interviews with a dozen former members of the organization and graduates of the schools it runs, most told The Associated Press that Barrett's association with the group should be examined when a Senate committee takes up her nomination beginning Monday.
Some were excited that one of their own could soon be on the high court, in a position to roll back abortion rights.
Others were deeply concerned about that threat, and also about the community’s teachings on gender and gay rights, as well as what they describe as its authoritarian structure.
Some wondered why Barrett hasn't disclosed or acknowledged her connection to People of Praise and why the group appeared to try to hide her affiliation by deleting documents from its website.
“I don’t think membership in the group is disqualifying,” said Rachel Coleman, who left the community in 2010. “I think that she needs to be open about it.”
The AP has documented extensive ties Barrett and her family have to the community, including that an old directory listed her as being one of the organization’s “handmaids,” now called a “woman leader,” and that she was a trustee of the group’s Trinity Schools.
People of Praise is not a church, but a faith community. It grew out of the Catholic charismatic movement rooted in Pentecostalism, which emphasizes a personal relationship with Jesus and can include baptism in the Holy Spirit, speaking in tongues and prophecy. It was founded in 1971 in South Bend, Indiana, and it has 22 branches and around 1,700 members, according to its website. Most members are Roman Catholic.
Among its teachings are that men are divinely ordained as the “head” of the family and faith, and it's the duty of wives to submit to them, according to current and former members. People who have been involved in and studied the organization say it's authoritarian and hierarchical. Some former members told AP of practices such as leaders deciding who can date who.
Members must sign a “covenant,” pledging love and service to fellow community members and to God. They agree to give at least 5% of their income to the community, according to their website.
The AP left messages with scores of current and former members. About a dozen agreed to interviews, several on condition of anonymity because they have family involved in the community.
People of Praise spokesman Sean Connolly declined to comment on members’ views and said the organization takes no position on Supreme Court nominees.
Coleman said People of Praise offers a strong sense of community often missing in modern secular life, and that can be a powerful draw. But she said it adheres to troubling gender ideas. She notes Barrett chose to join as an adult, leading Coleman to ask what that means about Barrett's views on gender roles.
Barrett would replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who stood against practices such as women not being able to get credit cards in their own names.
“It just kind of bothers me to feel like someone’s being put in her seat who signed into the same sort of oppressive gender ideas that Ruth Bader Ginsburg was trying to overturn,” Coleman said.
She and others said Barrett should make public the covenant she signed to become a member.
Mary Belton thinks Barrett’s history with People of Praise is disqualifying. Belton says her family was cast out of the community around 1990 after her mother came out as gay. She said it took her years to let go of teachings she grew up hearing while involved with People of Praise, such as that her mother was a sinner who was going to a “literal fiery hell.” She doesn't think Barrett can set those teachings aside.
“It’s worrisome. It’s who she is," Belton said. “Anyone that I know, including myself, that has grown up in it and has left has had to go through a huge transformation and rewiring of your personhood, of your brain, of your soul and spirit.”
Cara Wood graduated from the organization's school in Virginia in 2010. She recalled that girls and boys were not allowed to hug or touch, and said it took her years to realize she was bisexual because “nothing in my environment made it possible that I could be anything but straight.”
Wood recalls Trinity students being encouraged to get the best education they could to then “take positions of power in the community.”
“They are specifically attempting to influence politics and power in the United States,” Wood said. “This is to me why Amy Coney Barrett is so dangerous, because (People of Praise) could not have a bigger win than landing a Supreme Court justice for life.”
Others said teachers were only trying to get across the idea that students provided with a stellar education had the responsibility to give back to society.
Peter Radosevich, a former longtime member in the Appleton, Wisconsin, branch, is proud of Barrett's nomination. He said the organization stays away from politics except about abortion.
“They think it’s a heinous crime, akin to infanticide, Auschwitz,” Radosevich said.
Susie Lea, a retired Catholic sister, left the Shreveport, Louisiana, branch last year. Based on what the judge has said publicly and due to her involvement in People of Praise, Lea believes Barrett agrees with her that abortion is wrong and will vote against it if she were on the court.
Lea believes Barrett’s association with People of Praise may have had a hand in her nomination.
“I’m hoping it helped her, you know, all our prayers lifting her up,” Lea said. “I just think that prayers work. If it’s the will of God, that it will work.”