WASHINGTON – While Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett has faced questions about how her Catholic faith might influence her jurisprudence, she has not spoken publicly about her involvement in People of Praise, a small Christian group founded in the 1970s and based in South Bend, Ind.
Barrett, a federal appellate judge, has disclosed serving on the board of a network of private Christian schools affiliated with the group. The organization, however, has declined to confirm that she is a member. In recent years, it removed from its website editions of a People of Praise magazine – first those that included her name and photograph and then all archives of the magazine itself.
Barrett has had an active role in the organization, as have her parents, according to documents and interviews that help fill out a picture of her involvement with a group that keeps its teachings and gatherings private.
A 2010 People of Praise directory states that she held the title of “handmaid,” a leadership position for women in the community, according to a directory excerpt obtained by The Washington Post.
Also, while in law school, Barrett lived at the South Bend home of People of Praise’s influential co-founder Kevin Ranaghan and his wife, Dorothy, who together helped establish the group’s male-dominated hierarchy and view of gender roles. The group was one of many to grow out of the charismatic Christian movement, which sought a more intense and communal religious experience by embracing such practices as shared living, faith healing and speaking in tongues.
Barrett’s ties to the group, which has conservative stances on the role of women in society and other social issues, did not come to light until after she was questioned by senators considering her nomination to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit in 2017. Senators are preparing to question her next week over her nomination to the high court.
Barrett has said that judges are not policymakers and that she does not impose her personal convictions on the law.
Responding to questions about Barrett’s membership in People of Praise and her tenure as handmaid, Sean Connolly, a spokesman for the group, said: “Like many religious communities, People of Praise leaves it up to its members to decide whether to publicly disclose their involvement in our community.”
White House spokesman Judd Deere called Barrett an “independent jurist with an exceptional record” and called The Post’s questions offensive.
The title of handmaid was adopted by People of Praise in reference to the biblical description of Mary as “the handmaid of the Lord,” according to the group.
Former members including Art Wang, a member from the late 1980s until 2015, told The Post that handmaids, now known as “women leaders,” give advice to other women on issues such as child rearing and marriage.
But the role did not carry authority equivalent to positions held by men in the group’s formal hierarchy, the former members said. The community is led by an overall coordinator and a board of governors. They oversee coordinators of each branch across the country, who in turn oversee coordinators of areas within the branches.
In 2010, Barrett was one of three handmaids in the South Bend branch’s northwest area, according to the directory obtained by The Post. She and 10 other area handmaids were overseen by the branch’s principal handmaid.
Barrett’s position was in keeping with her family’s prior service in the community. Her mother, Linda Coney, served in the New Orleans branch as a handmaid, the Associated Press previously reported, and her father, Michael Coney, led that branch as principal coordinator and sat on the national group’s all-male board of governors.
Connolly said in an email that the group replaced the title of handmaids with “women leaders” in 2017.
Connolly said in a 2018 statement that the title was dropped out of a recognition that its meaning had “shifted dramatically in our culture in recent years.” The phrase took on a particular meaning in popular culture after Margaret Atwood’s dystopian 1985 novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” was adapted for television in 2017. Atwood said in a tweet last month that she was inspired by “a different but similar” group.
Women leaders “help other women who are seeking advice and guidance” and lead retreats and events, Connolly said in the email, adding that they are “appointed after consultation with members of a branch.”
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People of Praise was established in 1971 by Ranaghan and Paul DeCelles, then young academics at the University of Notre Dame. It was formed as a “covenant community,” in which members looking for close community promise to abide by a common agreement.
While People of Praise is open to all Christians, the vast majority are Catholic, like Barrett. At the time the group was founded, many denominations – including the Catholic Church – looked warily at groups that adopted different practices and created insular, separate communities. That wariness has largely subsided.
People of Praise now claims about 1,700 members in 22 cities in the United States, Canada and the Caribbean.
At its formation, People of Praise wanted “to have a more intense Christian community,” said the Rev. James Connelly, a historian of religion based at the University of Notre Dame who was close to some early members. “They wanted to talk about religion, spiritual life, their experiences, to do things together that might not be to the average person’s liking. Not just Mass on Sunday, but something much more intense.”
The community was led by men, who taught members to run their families according to their interpretation of biblical views of gender roles, according to former members and group documents.
“Women were homemakers; they were there to support their husbands,” one former member said in an interview. “My dad was the head of the household and the decision-maker.”
A person who was raised in the community said she was instructed by elders not to “emasculate” her male peers by getting the better of them in conversation. “I was made aware of the difference from a young age,” the person said. “I was aware that it would have been better if I had been born a boy.”
The people spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak about their experiences because they feared negative consequences for members they care about who remain active in People of Praise.
Connolly said that telling girls not to seem smarter than boys does not align with People of Praise teachings.
A 1986 community handbook obtained by The Post said each member is “personally accountable to God for his or her decisions,” but also emphasized “obedience to authority and submission to headship.”
Members are typically assigned a “head” to give them spiritual leadership and guidance on life matters such as buying a car or finding a romantic partner. Younger men and women are led by older members of the same sex, according to former members, but husbands typically take over as “heads” for their wives following marriage.
Men’s “headship” of their wives, and the male-dominated governance of the community, has been the basis of accusations from some critics of Barrett that People of Praise is built on the sexist expectation that women defer to men.
The summer 2015 issue of People of Praise’s magazine, Vine & Branches, featured an article titled “Holiness in Marriage,” which it said was based on a talk given to women in the community in the 1980s by Jeanne DeCelles, wife of co-founder Paul DeCelles.
“Make it a joy for him to head you,” Jeanne DeCelles said, according to the article. “It is important for you to verbalize your commitment to submission. … Tell him what you think about things, make your input, but let him make the decisions, and support them once they are made.”
Connolly said every People of Praise member is responsible for his or her own decisions. “In the People of Praise we live by the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which recognizes that men and women share a fundamental equality as bearers of God’s image and sons and daughters of God,” he said. “We value independent thinking, and teach it in our schools.”
The group declined to make current members available for interview, and some members reached by The Post declined to comment.
John Fea, a prominent historian of U.S. religion at Messiah University, said Barrett would be the first Supreme Court justice to come from a charismatic Christian background.
Fea said he believes it is fair for senators to ask Barrett how she views the blending of her small, insular community and a job judging for a nation. But he said People of Praise’s belief in distinct gender roles is similar to what is lived and preached across much of America today, in faiths as different as Catholicism, the Southern Baptist Convention and orthodox Islam and Judaism.
He said that believing men should be the spiritual leaders of the family does not mean that women cannot be professionally ambitious. “Everything about Amy Coney Barrett’s career contradicts the idea that women in People of Praise can’t have careers or be successful,” he said.
When President Donald Trump introduced Barrett as his nominee in the White House Rose Garden on Sept. 26, Barrett described her own husband as doing “far more than his share of the work” in raising their seven children.
“To my chagrin, I learned at dinner recently that my children consider him to be the better cook,” she said. “For 21 years, Jesse has asked me every single morning what he can do for me that day. And though I almost always say, ‘Nothing,’ he still finds ways to take things off my plate.”
Since its earliest days, some People of Praise members have lived in communal homes or lodged with elders before marrying. Former members said this was a way for older members to show a model of family life. Over the years, multiple members stayed at the Ranaghans’ nine-bedroom house in South Bend, often while studying at Notre Dame and after graduating, former members said.
Barrett lived with the Ranaghans when she was a Notre Dame law student, according to a person who knew her at the time.
“Let’s just say it was one of the better experiences of our life. She is just a gem. But I don’t feel comfortable talking right now,” Dorothy Ranaghan told the Guardian, which first reported the fact that Barrett lived with the Ranaghans on Tuesday.
Kevin Ranaghan, a theology scholar and teacher, was already a major figure in charismatic Catholicism, speaking internationally and hosting prayer events at Notre Dame that drew hundreds and sometimes thousands of people in the movement’s early years.
Dorothy Ranaghan, a former high school religion teacher, co-wrote two books on charismatic Christianity with her husband in the years around People of Praise’s founding.
She lamented the impact of modern feminism in a 1991 essay that said “the basic differences between men and women should be respected and given cultural expression” and promoted the traditional roles of husbands as decision-makers and wives as homemakers, even as women pursue professional ambitions.
“The wife for her part is called to submit to her husband, not as a slave, but as a companion,” Ranaghan wrote, while stressing that there was “no room here for domination, oppression or of thinking of her as less than a full and free human person.” The Post obtained a copy of the essay from a former People of Praise member.
The essay also criticized a magazine for Girl Scout leaders as presenting an “overly aggressive idealization of girls and women.”
After Barrett graduated from law school in 1997, she worked in the District of Columbia as an intern and then as a judicial clerk, according to biographical details she has submitted to the Senate.
Meanwhile, her future husband, Jesse Barrett – whose family also had long ties to People of Praise, according to an obituary he wrote for his grandfather – remained in South Bend to finish law school. In a court record for a February 1998 speeding offense, Jesse Barrett’s address is listed as the Ranaghans’ home.
Jesse graduated in 1999 and married Amy later that year.
Kevin Ranaghan referred interview requests in recent days to Connolly, and on Tuesday he and his wife did not respond to questions about Amy Coney Barrett’s time living with their family.
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Questions about Barrett’s Catholic faith in 2017 prompted a backlash from conservative critics, who accused Democratic senators of trying to impose an unconstitutional religious test on a judicial nominee.
Barrett did not mention her membership in People of Praise in response to questions from the Senate about groups with which she has been affiliated, either that year or in conjunction with her current nomination.
Recent Supreme Court nominees have not listed their houses of worship among the organizations to which they belong. People of Praise says on its own website that it is not a church but a “Christian community” whose members come from more than a dozen Christian denominations and churches.
But some have reported participation in organizations that have religious associations. When he was nominated to the Supreme Court by Trump in 2018, Brett Kavanaugh reported having volunteered for Catholic Charities, a philanthropic arm of the Archdiocese of Washington. And Barrett reported that she served on the board of directors of Trinity Schools, a group of independent Christian schools in South Bend; Eagan, Minn.; and Falls Church, Va. She did not mention that Trinity was established by People of Praise and requires directors to be members of the group.
Numerous references to Barrett and her family that previously appeared on People of Praise’s official website have since disappeared from the site, according to a Post review of versions of the site that are hosted by the Internet Archive.
Links to at least 10 issues of Vine & Branches that included mentions of Barrett or members of her family were removed from the site during the first half of 2017, the review found. On May 8, 2017, Barrett was nominated by Trump to serve as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit.
In one of the removed issues, from May 2006, Barrett was pictured at the group’s 2006 Leaders Conference for Women in South Bend. An accompanying article described the gathering as “three days of talks, sharings and conversations, all of which revealed the explosive power of love.”
Other issues of the magazine that disappeared from the site included announcements of the births of some of Barrett’s children and articles that mentioned relatives of Barrett and her husband, Jesse.
The section of the People of Praise website that for years featured a gallery of links to full issues of the magazine dating back 14 years was removed from the site altogether soon after Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death last month, the archives show.
Connolly said the changes to the website were made “after discussions with members and nonmembers raised privacy concerns with the heightened media attention.”
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The Washington Post’s Julie Tate contributed to this report.