Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley leaned heavily into the religious liberty debate during the first day of Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation hearings, alleging that a Democratic senator’s reference to a decades-old case was an attack on Barrett’s faith.
Hawley, a potential 2024 presidential candidate, centered his opening statement on religious liberty, noting that the Constitution forbids a religious test for public office and accusing Democrats of seeking to enact one.
“This freedom of conscience and religious liberty undergirds all of our other rights because it tells the government that it cannot tell us what to think or who we can assemble with, or how we can worship or what we can say,” Hawley said as the Senate Judiciary Committee began hearings on Barrett’s nomination.
During her 2017 confirmation hearing for her current position on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, Barrett faced questions about her faith.
California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein commented to Barrett at the time that the “Dogma lives loudly in you,” a line that Republicans have brought up frequently as an example of anti-Catholic bias as Barrett is considered to fill a seat on the Supreme Court.
“Judge Barrett is a Catholic. We all know that. She’s a devout Catholic. We all know that,” Hawley said.
“Heck, 65 million Americans are all Catholics and many, many millions more are Christians of other persuasions,” said Hawley, an evangelical Christian. “Are they to be told that they cannot serve in public office, that they are not welcome in the public sphere unless the members of this committee sign off on their religious beliefs?”
However, Democrats don’t appear to be looking for an explicit fight over Barrett’s religion weeks ahead of an election when Catholic voters will be a key swing constituency. In their opening statements, Democrats on the committee largely focused on the Affordable Care Act, former President Barack Obama’s signature health care law.
The Supreme Court is set to hear a case on the constitutionality of the ACA the week after the election and Barrett’s confirmation would increase the chances that the law would be struck down because of a legal challenge brought by Republican-led states, including Missouri.
Hawley committed Missouri to the Texas-led lawsuit in 2018 during his tenure as Missouri attorney general. His successor, Attorney General Eric Schmitt, has continued participation in the case, which could endanger Medicaid expansion.
Democrats on the Judiciary Committee sat in front of photographs of people who would be in danger of losing their health care plans if the law’s protections for pre-existing conditions are struck down.
“These protections are on the line, on the ballot and on the docket of the Supreme Court. And it’s not just the ACA at risk,” Delaware Democratic Sen. Chris Coons said.
Coons then transitioned to settled cases for which he contended that Barrett’s confirmation poses the threat of reversal, including Roe v. Wade, which legalized nationwide abortion in 1973, and Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized same-sex marriage nationwide in 2015.
He also included Griswold v. Connecticut, a 1965 decision that struck down a Connecticut law that restricted the sale of contraceptives. The Griswold decision found the Connecticut law violated the right to marital privacy, a precedent that was cited in the Obergefell decision five decades later.
“This is what I believe is at stake with this nomination. Judge Barrett, you will be deciding cases that have real daily impacts on the lives of millions of Americans. They deserve to understand why President Trump nominated you and what consequences your decision may have on them and their lives,” Coons said.
Coons made no specific mention of Barrett’s religion.
However, Hawley, who spoke immediately after Coons, contended that the Democrat’s invocation of the 1965 case was a veiled reference to the Catholic Church’s teaching against contraception.
He said the committee had shown a “pattern and practice of religious bigotry” and alleged that Coons’ comment was an example.
“I just heard my colleague, Sen. Coons, make a reference to an old case, the Griswold case, which I can only assume is another hit at Judge Barrett’s religious faith, referring to Catholic doctrinal belief. I don’t know what else it could be since no one has challenged this case. It’s not a live issue and has not been for decades,” Hawley said.
Coons is a Presbyterian. However, his wife, Annie Coons, is a practicing Catholic and the couple regularly attends Catholic mass in Wilmington.
Speaking to reporters during a break in the hearing, Coons brushed off Hawley’s criticism.
“I’m not going to help Sen. Hawley run for president. I mean, my focus today was on the concerns that I’m hearing from Delawareans, which was that there is a Supreme Court case a week after the election where the Affordable Care Act is at risk,” Coons said, according to the Senate press pool.
The fight over Barrett’s nomination — and the potential focus on her Catholic faith — takes place as both President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden make overt appeals to Catholic voters ahead of the November 3 election.
Biden, the Democratic nominee, is the only Catholic to serve as vice president and would be only the second Catholic president if elected. Biden told reporters Monday that Barrett’s faith should not be considered as part of the confirmation process and that focus should remain on the pending ACA case.
“Let’s keep our eye on the ball. This is about whether in less than one month Americans are going to lose their health insurance,” Biden said.