Amy Coney Barrett's People of Praise and the Role of Women, According to Former Members

Former members of a self-described charismatic Christian community known as People of Praise have revealed details about the role of women within the group—of which potential Supreme Court justice pick Amy Coney Barrett is allegedly a member.

Barrett, a federal appeals court judge, is considered the frontrunner to be nominated by President Donald Trump to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died last week aged 87.

A devout Roman Catholic and mother of seven, 48-year-old Barrett and her husband, Jesse Barrett, are both reportedly members of People of Praise. The group does not publicly list its members and Barrett herself has never commented on the matter.

Barrett, through a spokesperson at the Notre Dame Law School where she is on the faculty, declined to comment for this piece.

The group, founded in 1971 in South Bend, Indiana, says it has a community of 1,700 members in 22 cities across the U.S., Canada and the Caribbean. In 2014, Pope Francis appointed one of its members, Peter Leslie Smith, the auxiliary bishop of Portland, Oregon.

With speculation swirling about who Trump will announce as his nominee for the Supreme Court on Saturday, people who were once part of the tight-knit community spoke to Newsweek, discussing how its leaders dictate almost every aspect of members' lives, including who they marry and how they raise their children.

People of Praise, the Catholic League and constitutional scholar Ilya Shapiro also spoke to Newsweek about allegations surrounding the group and speculation over Barrett's involvement, which are included further down in the article.

Coral Anika Theill, a former member of a branch of the group in Corvallis, Oregon, told Newsweek that women are expected to be "absolutely obedient" to their husbands and the men in the group. According to Theill, those who aren't are "shamed, shunned, humiliated."

Members of the People of Praise are also assigned advisers of the same sex, called a "head" for men and a "handmaid" for women—until the latter phrase apparently became too charged following the release of Hulu's television adaption of Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel The Handmaid's Tale. The novel portrays a totalitarian, theocratic regime where women are considered property of the state.

The term "handmaid" is rooted in the Bible. Mary, the mother of Jesus, described herself as "handmaid of the Lord." But the negative connotations from the show prompted People of Praise to start referring to female advisors as "women leaders," according to reports.

For a married women, her husband is her "head"—he makes the decisions for the family and serves as her moral compass. "Total discipline is imposed upon those who submit themselves to their head," said Theill, "and this includes submission of your will, your desire, your actions."

Regarding the allegations by Theill, Sean Connelly, communications director for People of Praise, told Newsweek: "Neither the men nor women leaders in the People of Praise Corvallis branch are aware that there were ever any allegations of physical or mental abuse concerning Ms. Thiell and her husband at the time.

"Her charges of the mistreatment of women, insularity, lack of privacy and shunning are contradictory to our beliefs and our practices as a community."

Tim Kaiser, who grew up in the People of Praise and left aged 18 in 1997, told Newsweek, "the submission to your husband bit is not negotiable or figurative.

"In the case of a woman, her 'head' is her husband—that's who is in charge of her. That is the person who is supposed to be making all of her moral decisions and taking responsibility for the condition of her soul. It's really creepy, but that's the idea."

"Subordinate role of women to men"

Members of People of Praise also make a lifelong vow of loyalty in a ceremony, which Theill and Kaiser both described as akin to a marriage contract.

Kaiser said his father moved their family from Ohio to South Bend, Indiana in order to join the community before he was born.

When he went off to college, he decided to cut ties before he was asked to make the lifelong commitment to the group, known as a covenant, because he had grown disillusioned with the level of authority the group exerts on members and its insular nature. Close family members remain part of the community.

"It depends on how well they think they've groomed you to some extent on whether or not they push you to join or whether they just let you go," he said. "I was let go fairly easy."

Those who do make the commitment find it tricky to leave, Kaiser says. "They don't let members go," he said. "In order to sever ties with the community, you have to mutually... essentially you and the community have to agree to break the covenant. They have to release you and they are very reluctant to do that."

Theill says she was forced to attend regular women's meetings, but never agreed to go through with the ceremony where she swore her loyalty. Likening the oath to "wedding vows," Theill said members "are taught that if they break that vow, their soul is in jeopardy."

Adrian J. Reimers, one of the founding members of People of Praise, later wrote a book criticizing the group, called Not Reliable Guides. In it, he explained the "sacrifice represented by making the covenant of the People of Praise is taken seriously."

One "lays down his life" according to the requirements of the community, he wrote, by "faithfully attending men's and women's groups, submitting to one's head willingly, performing four hours of service to the community every week, contributing 5-13 percent of one's gross income to the community, and so on."

The "subordinate role of women to men is a fundamental cultural premise" for the group, he wrote.

People of Praise
People of Praise, founded in 1971 in South Bend, Indiana, says it has a community of 1,700 members in 22 cities across the U.S., Canada and the Caribbean. People of Praise/YouTube

Reimers was forced out after 13 years for raising concerns about how much authority group leaders had over the lives of members as well as the group's deviation from Roman Catholic doctrine, according to The New York Times.

The final straw, Reimers said, came when he had objected to instructions given to his wife by a handmaid. When he relayed his concerns to his head, he was told his wife was "trying to undermine God's plan for her life."

In Not Reliable Guides, Reimers described how a married woman in the People of Praise is "expected always to reflect the fact that she is under her husband's authority."

"This goes beyond an acknowledgment that the husband is 'head of the home' or head of the family; he is, in fact, her personal pastoral head. Whatever she does requires at least his tacit approval," he wrote.

He continues: "The wife, as a good member of the community, has a prima facie obligation to obey her husband as the bearer of God's will. In practice, this means that the two do not—indeed, cannot—relate as equals."

"I had no rights"

Both Theill and Kaiser recalled how members of the People of Praise were urged to marry within the community, a practice common in many religious groups.

Kaiser recalls getting an invitation to his childhood best friend's wedding, years after he had left. "He had decided to join up and then a couple of years after that, I was invited to his wedding. And I asked, 'Oh, who are you marrying?' [It was] this woman from one of the other branches. 'How do you know her?' He's like, 'Well, I don't really.' He'd met her twice and he had been told this would be a good partner for him.

"He sounded like he was very enthusiastic about it and having met her once or twice, it was wonderful and it was a great fit, and now they were getting married, but the whole thing came across very arranged marriage... which is a common theme that I've heard from other people who have left, that there's pressure for these arranged marriages."

Kaiser said he "didn't want to paint the People of Praise as being, in all cases, bad."

"They do wonderful things, as far as they see them, but there are just some really problematic parts of their power structure and their core beliefs," he said.

Members were "all supposed to stay in the People of Praise group and marry other children of People of Praise members," Theill said.

She grew up in a Lutheran family and said she was pressured to convert to Catholicism after she married a man who a few years later signed up to the People of Praise community in Corvallis, Oregon, when she was 24.

"I had to join the group because my husband expected full obedience of me," Theill told Newsweek. She says the five years she spent in the community, between 1979 and 1984, traumatized her.

"There's just a lot of rules. As a wife, I couldn't even see my doctor alone. I couldn't see my family unless they gave me permission. I couldn't talk to neighbors, I couldn't see or talk to friends," she said.

Theill, who wrote a blog post called "I lived the Handmaid's Tale" last year, added: "The People of Praise community use coercive control, isolation, intimidation tactics. Their cult ideology is based on domination and the submission of women. I had no rights.

"I suffered two miscarriages back to back, I wasn't allowed contraceptives, that was something that I had no control of. I had no privacy. I lived like The Handmaid's Tale, and it was very painful."

Theill adds that some members "act happy, like it's wonderful—it's the way they express their obedience to God."

But she says: "It is not healthy. And I found many women that were not healthy. Some women had babies through their 40s. It didn't matter what their health was. It didn't matter. It was just the way of life."

"Conservative, authoritarian, hierarchical, and patriarchal"

Theill refers to the group as a "charismatic dictatorship" and a "cult."

"There was a lot of abuse and shaming, shunning, intimidation, bullying going on," she said. "You did not say no, or there was retaliation."

She said the "handmaids"—now called "women leaders"—were often cruel and abused their power. Theill said even if she had just given birth, she could still be called upon to, for instance, clean someone's house. "It didn't matter if you wanted to or not, it didn't matter what your health was, that's what you were supposed to do. And they really didn't consider your health, they did not care. You were just told what to do."

She recalled how she was once forced to sit on the floor in the hallway outside a community meeting "as a form of humiliation."

People were "fine with that," she said. "Many of them passed me and they just knew that that was a part of being in the community."

She added: "I was called mentally ill because I questioned the leaders. I think they used me as an example to show what you do when you do not submit to them. Men would stop by my home unexpectedly to check to make sure I was doing my chores."

Amy Coney Barrett _Horizontal
Amy Coney Barrett, an alleged member of People of Praise, is the favorite to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg's seat on the Supreme Court. Rachel Malehorn

Theill says although she was part of a People of Praise community in Oregon, different branches operate similarly.

"There's a lot of isolation, we are exposed to all these communities interacting with one another, on rare occasions with the outside world. They have their own schools and the kids are supposed to marry one another," she said.

Theill said she was a trained court reporter and a pilot but "she was not allowed to work, nor was I ever allowed to fly a plane again."

After she questioned leaders, she recalled how she was made to attend special meetings with a leader from South Bend. "They used the leaders from the Vancouver People of Praise branch to come and stay in our home if my ex-husband was ever gone," she added.

When Theill eventually left, she said lost access to her eight children, including her nursing baby.

"Even when you leave, it's just a very highly traumatic experience. For five years, I watched people's children, I took them meals, I helped them when they were ill, you know, I was friends with them and then all of a sudden because I walked out... I was no longer a human being to them."

Thomas Csordas, a professor of anthropology at the University of California, San Diego, who has researched and written about charismatic Christian communities, told Newsweek in an email that "People of Praise and other Catholic Charismatic covenant communities are indeed conservative, authoritarian, hierarchical, and patriarchal."

"That being said, they are obviously not so patriarchal that they deny women the right to have careers such as lawyer or judge," he added.

"They think the Bible says men should be leaders; originally women could have some authority over other women but not in the community as a whole, though my impression is that this has moderated somewhat over time. Women are subordinate to their husbands in the sense that the man has the final word, but not that the woman must be silent."

In response to the allegations made by former members, Connelly told Newsweek that women are not mistreated and instead take on "a variety of critical leadership roles."

"Mistreatment of women, insularity, control and shunning are contradictory to our beliefs and our practices as a community," he said.

"Contrary to what has been alleged, women take on a variety of critical leadership roles within People of Praise, including serving as heads of several of our schools and directing ministries within our community.

"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. We value independent thinking, and teach it in our schools. We practice honor and respect for one another in everything we do," Connelly added.

Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, America's largest Catholic civil rights organization, told Newsweek that by looking at Barrett's career, he is doubtful she is subservient to either her husband or to People of Praise.

"I have no idea whether there is any 'teaching' on women being subservient to men, but from everything I have learned about Amy Coney Barrett, she is not subservient to anyone, save for Christ," he said.

Speaking to Newsweek about Amy Coney Barrett's involvement with People of Praise, constitutional scholar Ilya Shapiro said that "it's not appropriate to cast aspersions on nominees because they're religious."

"It's fair game to ask whether and how someone's religious views might affect a nominee's jurisprudence—the Democrats did this poorly at Barrett's Seventh Circuit confirmation hearing—but being religious and being an impartial jurist aren't mutually exclusive," Shapiro added.