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At Senate Hearings, Coney Barrett Could Face Questions About Catholic Beliefs


The confirmation hearings for Amy Coney Barrett, President Trump's nominee for the Supreme Court, are expected to begin on October 12, and they're likely to be contentious. NPR's Tom Gjelten says Barrett could face questions about her strict Catholic beliefs.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: If Amy Coney Barrett is confirmed, of the nine justices on the court, she'd be the sixth practicing Catholic. Not that all the Catholic justices think alike - Sonia Sotomayor and Clarence Thomas, both Catholic, are ideological opposites.

Thomas Reese is a Jesuit priest and columnist for the Religion News Service.

THOMAS REESE: Catholics tend to pick and choose which parts of Catholic teaching have an impact on their political views.

GJELTEN: In fact, the Catholicism of other justices was not a major issue in their hearings. But religion did come up when Amy Coney Barrett was nominated to be a federal judge. Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein told Barrett, the dogma lives loudly within you. And Republican Chuck Grassley wondered when a judge can put their religious views above the law. Barrett's answer...


AMY CONEY BARRETT: It's never appropriate for a judge to impose that judge's personal convictions, whether they derive from faith or anywhere else, on the law.

GJELTEN: In fact, some controversial positions Barrett has taken - on gun rights, for example - can hardly be attributed to her Catholicism. Thomas Reese is not concerned whether candidates for the court are Catholic or not.

REESE: We know what their legal reasoning is, what positions they have taken or what their writings are. So religion becomes a totally irrelevant issue in terms of judging whether they will be the kind of jurist we want.

GJELTEN: Moreover, other justices have referenced their faith without controversy. Ruth Bader Ginsburg once said she hoped her service on the court would honor the Jewish tradition to demand justice. Marci Hamilton, who specializes in law and religion at the University of Pennsylvania, says it is nevertheless legitimate to question justices about how their religious beliefs would influence their thinking on the court.

MARCI HAMILTON: They're required to be driven by the law, and if it is impossible for them to follow what the law requires and instead provide their own religious template on the law, that's inappropriate.

GJELTEN: Barrett's confirmation has raised some special questions because of her reported membership in a conservative, charismatic Catholic group known as People of Praise. Massimo Faggioli, a theology professor at Villanova University, has studied such groups and says their members are expected to follow the counsel of their religious leaders.

MASSIMO FAGGIOLI: This is a different kind of Catholic whose Catholic culture is very particular and whose loyalty to the law goes together with lifelong commitments to leaders and other members of the group.

GJELTEN: Barrett has not discussed her connection to People of Praise, though her supporters insist it is irrelevant to her responsibility as a judge. In 2006, Barrett told graduates of the Notre Dame Law School that they should see their legal career as a means to build the kingdom of God. Again, Marci Hamilton of the University of Pennsylvania.

HAMILTON: You already have at least five members of the Supreme Court that have no respect for the separation of church and state. I would assume that Judge Barrett will fall into that camp.

GJELTEN: Still, it's far from clear that any of Judge Barrett's religious views will get much attention in her hearings. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is advising Democrats to stay away from Barrett's faith. She spoke yesterday on CNN's "State Of The Union" program.


NANCY PELOSI: It doesn't matter what her faith is or what religion she believes in. What matters is, does she believe in the Constitution of the United States?

GJELTEN: Catholics are seen as a key voter group, another reason for Democrats not to raise Barrett's Catholicism as they consider her nomination.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.