WASHINGTON — In the hours and days after President Donald Trump announced Judge Amy Coney Barrett as his nominee for the US Supreme Court last month, Republican lawmakers and conservative groups launched widespread preemptive attacks against any criticism of Barrett’s Catholic faith from Democrats.
Over three days of hearings on her nomination this week, Democrats barely touched the subject.
The preemptive counteroffensive by Republicans stems from questions that Barrett faced in 2017 as a nominee for the US Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit. Those questions and comments — especially Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s remark that “the dogma lives loudly within you” — became a rallying cry for Barrett’s supporters over the next three years. Republicans resurfaced the quote into the conversation around Barrett’s Supreme Court nomination in recent weeks, predicting Democrats would make her religion an issue after Trump chose the judge as his nominee for the late justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s seat.
In their opening statements and questions for Barrett this week, Democrats pressed her about whether she would be a vote to reverse or chip away at Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that established a nationwide right to abortion. Democrats also asked her about anti-abortion statements she’d signed in the past. But they did not focus on her faith or bring up her religious practices as a Catholic.
In trying to combat questions about Barrett’s religion that never came, Republican members ended up repeatedly bringing her religion into the hearings, however.
“You’re Catholic,” Lindsey Graham, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said to Barrett on Tuesday, kicking off a string of questions about her faith. She replied that she was. Graham asked whether her faith meant “a lot” to her personally, to confirm that she’d raised her family Catholic, and if she could set aside her religious beliefs in considering cases as a judge. Barrett answered yes to each of his questions.
“This is the first time in American history that we've nominated a woman who is unashamedly pro-life and embraces her faith without apology and she is going to the court,” Graham said on Wednesday.
Sen. Marsha Blackburn praised Barrett for being “pro-life, pro-family, pro-religion.” Sen. John Kennedy asked if Barrett would adhere to the oath she would take if confirmed as a Supreme Court justice to support and defend the Constitution, regardless of her religion; she said she would.
Sen. Josh Hawley brought up Barrett’s faith several times, saying on Wednesday that “there's nothing wrong with confirming to the Supreme Court of the United States a devout Catholic, pro-life, Christian.” Hawley at one point went further than Barrett was willing to in discussing her faith. In a line of questioning intended to defend an anti-abortion statement that Barrett signed in 2006, when she was a law professor, Hawley asked Barrett if the statement “reflects your understanding of your church’s teaching and your own personal views.”
Barrett demurred; she said that while the statement reflected her views as a private citizen nearly 15 years ago, now that she was a public official, “I don’t feel like it is appropriate for me anymore, because of the canons of conduct, to express an affirmative view at this point in time.”
No committee member, Republican or Democrat, asked Barrett about her reported membership in People of Praise, the close-knit charismatic Christian community that received considerable press attention in the lead-up to her confirmation hearings.
Vice President Mike Pence had also raised the specter of Democrats attacking Barrett’s faith during his debate with Sen. Kamala Harris, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, last week. Harris, who also sits on the Judiciary Committee, called the suggestion that she or former vice president Joe Biden would do so “insulting,” noting that they are both “people of faith” and that Biden would be only the nation’s second Catholic president. Harris, too, did not raise the issue during her remarks or questioning of Barrett this week, instead focusing on healthcare and the coronavirus pandemic.
Hawley accused Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of going after Barrett’s faith for asking her about speeches she’d made at the Blackstone Legal Fellowship, a program for Christian law students sponsored by Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative legal advocacy group. Leahy asked if Barrett was aware that the group had supported “recriminalizing homosexuality”; ADF filed briefs in 2003 in the Supreme Court supporting state anti-sodomy laws and has supported such laws in other countries. Barrett said she was not.
“Whether you believe that being gay is right or wrong is irrelevant to me. But my concern is that you work with an organization working to criminalize people for loving a person that they are in love with. So that’s what ... worried me,” Leahy said.
Barrett replied that she hadn’t “read all of the material that the students were given to read.”
“I enjoyed teaching the students about what my specialty was, which is constitutional law, and nothing about any of my interactions with anyone involved in the Blackstone program were ever indicative of any kind of discrimination on the basis of anything,” Barrett said.
She declined to specify how she would rule on any abortion-related cases as a Supreme Court justice, saying it wouldn’t be appropriate to speculate or telegraph how she might rule on issues that could come before the court, and that doing so would violate the ethics rules she’s bound by as a lower court judge.
She did say that she did not think that Roe and the decisions on abortion rights that followed were so settled that the case was an untouchable “super precedent.” Barrett had used that term in her writings as a law professor to refer to a small group of major Supreme Court cases such as Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 decision that struck down racial segregation in public schools.
“I'm answering a lot of questions about Roe, which I think indicates that Roe doesn't fall in that category,” Barrett said on Tuesday in response to questions about the case from Sen. Amy Klobuchar. “And scholars across the spectrum say that doesn't mean Roe should be overruled, but descriptively it means it's not a case that everyone has accepted and doesn't call for its overruling.”