Subject to confirmation by the Senate, Amy Coney Barrett will be the youngest justice on the US supreme court, a position from which she will be set to influence American life for decades yet to come.
Donald Trump’s nomination of the 48-year-old comes two years after her name surfaced as a possible replacement for the retiring Anthony Kennedy, whose seat was ultimately filled by Brett Kavanaugh after contentious confirmation hearings.
Republicans want Barrett confirmed before the presidential election, on 3 November. Democrats lack the power to block her but the process is likely to be no less contentious than that which Kavanaugh survived.
To the fore is Barrett’s religious faith, prominently her association with People of Praise, a charismatic Christian group with what is described as an authoritarian internal structure.
Arguments from both political factions have been publicly rehearsed: will Barrett’s religious convictions affect her performance as a supreme court justice, or should they have nothing to do with determining her fitness for such an important role?
Conservatives argue public questions about religious beliefs should be excluded. Liberals suggest Barrett’s beliefs could overshadow her ability to administer unconflicted jurisprudence on issues such as abortion and contraception, thereby threatening foundational values of religious liberty.
Barrett clerked for the late conservative justice Antonin Scalia, who argued that there is no constitutional right to abortion. The gravest threat Barrett poses, according to many on the left, is to Roe v Wade, the 1973 ruling that ensured abortion rights.
In 2017, Trump nominated the Louisiana native and Notre Dame Law School graduate to the Chicago-based seventh US circuit court of appeals.
Answering a White House questionnaire, the mother of seven – who adopted two children from Haiti – said she admired justice Elena Kagan, an Obama-appointed abortion rights supporter, for bringing “the knowledge and skill she acquired as an academic to the practical resolution of disputes”.
But during her confirmation hearing, Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein memorably said Barrett had “a long history of believing that your religious beliefs should prevail” and added: “The dogma lives loudly in you.”
Barrett has said she is a “faithful Catholic” but her religious beliefs do not “bear in the discharge of my duties as a judge”. She has also said legal careers ought not to be seen as means of gaining satisfaction, prestige or money, but rather “as a means to the end of serving God”.
People of Praise, the group to which Barrett belongs, emerged out of the revivalist movement of the 1960s, which blended Catholicism and Protestant Pentecostalism. Founded in South Bend, Indiana, in 1971 and with 1,700 members, the group describes itself as a community that “support[s] each other financially and materially and spiritually”.
“Our covenant is neither an oath nor a vow, but it is an important personal commitment,” it says on its website. “Members should always follow their consciences, as formed by the light of reason, and by the experience and the teachings of their churches.”
On Saturday William Cash, chairman of the Catholic Herald, told the Guardian members of People of Praise were on “the conservative side of the church and are unlikely to be the sort of progressives who are fanatical about Pope Francis”.
“There’s nothing particularly extreme about People of Praise – other than it is very hierarchical and women are not given senior positions,” he said.
The former reporter saw questions about Barrett’s Catholicism and the supreme court in the context of the White House race.
“Not only is Biden Catholic, albeit in a very liberal way that will alienate many ‘trads’,” Cash said, “but Melania Trump is also a practicing Catholic and has even had a private audience with Pope Francis in Rome, describing it as one of the most important moments of her life. So Melania, Amy Coney Barrett and Biden are from opposite poles of the US Catholic planet.”
Former members of People of Praise and religious scholars have described an organization that appears to dominate some members’ everyday lives, in which so-called “heads”, or spiritual advisers, oversee major decisions. Married women count their husbands as their “heads” and members are expected to tithe 5% of their income to the organization.
According to a former member, Adrian Reimers, “all one’s decisions and dealings become the concern of one’s ‘head’, and in turn potentially become known to the leadership”.
Heidi Schlumpf, a national correspondent for National Catholic Reporter, called the group’s level of secrecy “concerning”.
Trump may sense in Barrett’s nomination a last chance to energise religious conservatives in his race for re-election. The president met evangelical leaders at the White House before introducing Barrett to the press.
In 2012, as a professor at Notre Dame, Barrett signed a letter attacking a provision of the Affordable Care Act, the healthcare reform known as Obamacare, that forced insurance companies to offer coverage for contraception, a facet of the law later modified for religious institutions.
Republican attempts to bring down the ACA have repeatedly fallen short. If Barrett is confirmed before the November election, one of her first cases shortly after it could determine its fate.