In anticipation of the potential nomination of a staunch Catholic woman to the Supreme Court, allies of President Donald Trump are mounting a preemptive attack on Democrats who may seek to question Judge Amy Coney Barrett about her faith—before any such questions have even been raised.
But Democrats say that they have zero interest in taking the bait.
“There’s no evidence in the run-up to this selection by Trump that anybody thinks it’s a good idea, on the left, to try to talk about her time as a professor at Notre Dame or her religious affiliations in the context of opposing her nomination,” said Brian Fallon, a longtime Democratic operative and founder of the progressive judicial advocacy organization Demand Justice, which opposes the confirmation of any nominee until after Inauguration Day. “It’s a phantom.”
“Everybody’s entitled to believe or practice and worship as they like,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, in a statement. “My focus is on substantive issues.”
With Barrett reportedly topping Trump’s list of potential nominees to replace Ginsburg, Republicans have become publicly convinced that Democrats will make Barrett’s past public writings about conflicts between faith and judicial impartiality, as well as her membership of a small Christian faith group, the centerpiece of their inquiry.
But Fallon said that Demand Justice, which has committed to spending $10 million fighting the confirmation of a justice to fill the seat of the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is “not going to go anywhere near her faith.”
“I can say up front that we don’t intend to do any ads or base any criticisms of Amy Coney Barrett, if she is the nominee, on her religion or her Catholic faith,” Fallon said.
Most of the protests focus on comments made by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the Senate Judiciary Committee’s ranking Democrat, during Barrett’s confirmation hearing for the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in 2017, in which Feinstein implied that Barrett’s outspoken Catholic faith could lead to courtroom conflicts.
“In your case, professor, when you read your speeches, the conclusion one draws is that the dogma lives loudly within you, and that’s of concern when you come to big issues that large numbers of people have fought for for years in this country,” Feinstein told Barrett at the time.
Barrett responded that as a circuit court judge, she “would faithfully apply all Supreme Court precedent” regardless of her personal feelings, and said during the hearing that it was “never appropriate for a judge to impose that judge’s personal convictions—whether they derive from faith or anywhere else—on the law.”
The exchange made Barrett a darling of religious conservatives—Feinstein’s “dogma” line has since been replicated on coffee mugs and T-shirts—and has featured in fundraising advertisements for conservative organizations ever since.
Barrett, since confirmed as a judge on the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, is a mother of seven children, two of them adopted, and a member of People of Praise, an ecumenical Christian organization headquartered in South Bend, Indiana, that has in the past incorporated some more baroque faith practices, including speaking in tongues, in its practices.
In the days since Ginsburg’s death, conservatives have practically dared Democrats to make an issue of any part of Barrett’s biography—particularly her faith.
“Even before @realDonaldTrump announces his #SCOTUS nominee, Democrats and Blue Bubble media have begun to voice their anti-Catholic bias,” tweeted conservative radio host and opinion columnist Hugh Hewitt on Wednesday, calling the supposed anti-Catholic bias “deep and enduring.”
“I still can’t get over the fact that liberals are going with the ‘Amy Coney Barrett is part of a weird religious cult’ line of attack when one of the few gettable Republicans on any final vote is Mitt Romney,” echoed Philip Klein, executive editor of the conservative-leaning Washington Examiner.
Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, accused numerous Senate Democrats of demonstrating hostility to Catholics in a statement on the potential nomination of Barrett to the nation’s highest court, and called on no fewer than five members of the Senate Judiciary Committee to recuse themselves from voting on her confirmation.
“These five senators have shown themselves incapable of fairly considering the nomination of a practicing Catholic to the nation’s highest court,” said Donohue, who singled out Sens. Dianne Feinstein, Kamala Harris, Mazie Hirono, Chuck Schumer and Dick Durbin (who is himself Catholic). “Should Amy Coney Barrett or Barbara Lagoa be chosen by President Trump to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court, these Democrats should recuse themselves.”
But beyond a hastily corrected piece published by the husk of Newsweek that falsely claimed that People of Praise inspired Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel A Handmaid’s Tale, the issue of Barrett’s faith has not been brought up by any prominent Democrat since Ginsburg’s death.
“How do we draw the focus of this process back to the core issues here?” said Christ Kang, Demand Justice’s chief counsel, outlining the group’s strategy ahead of the confirmation hearings. “I think that you’ll have a much different approach [from past hearings], to not just interrogate the particular nominee about specific statements they made.”
Democrats have made it clear that the fate of the Affordable Care Act is the issue they’re focusing on, and see preemptive conservative outrage over “anti-Catholicism” as a distraction—particularly since former Vice President Joe Biden is the party’s fourth Catholic presidential nominee.
“This would not be the first issue where Republicans try to create a false sense of outrage,” said Fallon. “Even if there’s no real offensive act that precipitates it, grievance politics is a big animating impulse in the Republican Party these days.”
Biden, a Mass-going Catholic who makes frequent reference to his faith on the campaign trail, currently enjoys a massive polling advantage among American Catholics. A new poll released on Tuesday by the EWTN Global Catholic Network found that Biden leads Trump among Catholic voters by 12 points—a 20-point swing from 2016, when Trump won the Catholic vote by a margin of eight points.
Trump has repeatedly attempted to peel back that support in recent weeks. During the Republican National Convention, prominent speaking slots were given to Sister Deirdre Byrne, a retired colonel of the U.S. Army and former surgeon who called Trump “the most pro-life president ever,” and to former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz, who bashed Biden’s stance on abortion and called and other pro-choice politicians “Catholics in name only.”
The maladroit attacks echo Trump’s clumsy attempts to woo Roman Catholics in 2016, efforts that included throwing a fistful of cash onto a Communion plate in Iowa, getting loudly heckled at a Catholic charity dinner for accusing opponent Hillary Clinton of “pretending not to hate Catholics,” and starting a prolonged feud with Pope Francis.
But the more Republicans are able to paint confirmation hearings as attacks on people of faith—particularly women of faith—Fallon said, the better the chance of sidestepping “the bigger fundamental issues at play,” including access to health care and reproductive rights.
“All these are bigger factors and, I think we’ll learn, much larger in terms of how this all plays, than a moment from a lower court confirmation hearing that nobody on the Democratic side of the aisle intends to reprise,” Fallon said.