Amy Coney Barrett, Donald Trump’s nominee for the US supreme court, went to my all-girls Catholic high school. We wore the same black-and-white plaid skirts and saddle oxfords and roamed the same halls, although nearly a decade apart. As students at St Mary’s Dominican High School, along with an education rooted in the Catholic faith, we were encouraged to be strong, independent women, future leaders of the world. I would be proud to see a fellow alum serve on our highest court if that person’s presence didn’t threaten to irrevocably harm the lives of millions of Americans.
We didn’t have a mascot at Dominican, only an emblem: Veritas. In Latin, truth. But the truth is not monolithic – it is informed by our belief systems. How we define the truth matters, especially for someone serving on the supreme court.
Barrett’s anti-abortion views have come to bear in public stances. In 2015, she signed a letter to Catholic bishops affirming the value of “life from conception” alongside prominent anti-choice figures such as Marjorie Dannenfeiser, president of anti-choice fundraising organization the Susan B Anthony List. As a law professor at Notre Dame, Barrett was a member of the anti-abortion group University Faculty for Life, and in 2006, she signed a paid ad in a South Bend newspaper that called for “an end to the barbaric legacy of Roe v Wade. In 2013, she delivered two talks to anti-abortion student groups at Notre Dame. Barrett has also been critical of the Affordable Care Act guarantee that requires employers to provide birth control to their employees.
Like the late Justice Scalia, for whom she clerked, Barrett is a self-described textualist and originalist; she interprets the US constitution based on its plain language and an attempted understanding of the intent and mindset of the original drafters. Barrett has also written that, in her view, it is appropriate and legitimate for judges to overturn precedents when they conflict with their personal interpretation of the constitution. Obedience to the exact original meaning of the constitution without current context is problematic. These laws were made by white, cisgender men who enslaved other human beings and never intended to include a vast sum of Americans – like women and people of color – in their quest for equal rights.
When one person’s truth, defined by the way they see the world, impacts the lives and liberties of generations of diverse Americans, it has tremendous power.
When I was in high school, I often wore a small gold pin in the shape of baby feet on my shirt collar. My Catholic upbringing taught me that the lives of the unborn needed protecting. I then attended the Catholic University of America, the only American university chartered by a pope. I was devout and sincere in my faith. But as the Catholic community on campus became more conservative and charismatic, more self-righteous in beliefs about “the right way,” I started to have more questions. As I became exposed to increasing world views, I began to understand the limits of my faith of origin and its proclamations.
Over time, I recognized that my belief in the “rightness” of my faith had made me think that someone else’s health and reproductive freedom should be legislated. Further, I saw how the Church’s patriarchal culture –even more rigid in charismatic communities – harmed the lives of girls and women when we were discouraged from any agency around our own bodies, sexuality and life choices. I saw how, in the absence of talk of abortion, people who claim to be “pro-life” often do not care about the lives of the most vulnerable Americans, including children born into poverty and struggle.
With Barrett’s nomination, I worry about the lives and futures of my fellow Americans. I worry about the lives of over 20 million Americans who depend on the Affordable Care Act for healthcare when Barrett criticized the supreme court decision upholding Congress’ authority to enforce it. I worry about the lives of women and all those with uteruses when Barrett has referred to abortion as “always immoral” and stated that judges may overturn precedents according to their interpretation of the constitution.
I worry about the lives of LGBTQ+ families when Barrett defended supreme court dissenters on the landmark marriage equality case Obergefell v Hodges. I worry about the lives of Black, Native, Asian and Latinx Americans when Barrett has pointed out what she perceives as flaws in Brown v The Board of Education: the landmark case that desegregated schools. I worry about the lives of transgender youth and adults when, in lectures, Barrett stated she did not know if transgender bathrooms were necessary given the text of Title IX and when she misgendered transwomen, calling them “physiological males.”
Much has been written about Barrett and her husband’s involvement as members of a charismatic “covenanted” community called People of Praise. As many Catholic individuals and organizations have noted, charismatic Catholic communities are very specific, divergent from mainstream Catholicism and more ideologically and culturally conservative. People of Praise is a hierarchical organization where members make a life-long commitment, or covenant, and donate at least five percent of their income to the group. One main tenet is that husbands are head of their wives and the authority of the family. Members are assigned a same-sex advisor, “head” for men and “woman leader” for single women (For decades “women advisors” were called “handmaids” but this was changed because of connotations from Margaret Atwood’s novel and the subsequent television series The Handmaid’s Tale). According to The New York Times, current and former members reported that these advisors “give direction on important decisions, including whom to date or marry, where to live, whether to take a job or buy a home, and how to raise children.” In reporting from The New York Times, Democracy Now and The National Catholic Reporter, former members describe the group as suffocating, authoritarian and abusive.
A worldview in which an authoritarian structure rules is one that erases individual autonomy. A worldview in which women play subservient roles, needing to consult others before making decisions, renders them without agency. This worldview is extremely dangerous when scaled to constitutional decisions on national policy, the domain of the supreme court.
I respect the role of religion and spirituality in our personal lives. And I do not take issue with someone of any faith serving on the supreme court or even describing themselves as devout. I do, however, have a problem when evidence exists, in words and actions, that their faith paired with their legal theory might compel them to make decisions that would negatively impact the lives, agency and wellbeing of generations of Americans.
Two years ago, my high school presented Amy Coney Barrett with the Alumna of the Year Award. I’ve read she was a respected teacher and is a polite person. I don’t doubt this. What I doubt is her ability to separate out the “rightness” of her faith from decisions about the future of healthcare, reproductive freedom, and civil rights for millions of Americans. What I fear is that her leadership on the supreme court would erode rather than protect liberty and justice for all.