Commentary

Conservative Christian legal group boasts it prays with Supreme Court justices

Umbrella with religious messages being displayed at the Supreme Court of the United States, December 5, 2017 in support of religious liberties during the Cake Shop case.
Umbrella with religious messages being displayed at the Supreme Court.Photo: Shutterstock

How much is the rightwing of the Supreme Court in the pocket of the religious right? According to a new report in Rolling Stone, some of the justices have actually prayed with the leader of the ministry that is under the umbrella of the anti-LGBTQ legal group Liberty Counsel.

The same Liberty Counsel that keeps bringing cases to the Supreme Court.

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In a hot mic moment that was meant to be off the record, Peggy Nienaber, executive director of Liberty Counsel’s Faith & Liberty ministry, couldn’t stop herself from boasting about the group’s access to the justices. Speaking to a livestreamer, Nienaber fell all over herself when asked if she prays with the justices.

“I do,” Nienaber responded. “They will pray with us, those that like us to pray with them.”

When the livestreamer asked Nienaber if she goes to the justices’ homes or offices, Nienaber bragged the prayers were in the Court. “We actually go in there,” she said.

To say that this is a bombshell is putting it mildly for multiple reasons. For one, the kind of access that Nienaber has would be remarkable.

More to the point, she’s affiliated with an organization with all kinds of business before the Court. The Liberty Counsel is in the business of bringing suits or filing amicus briefs. Most recently, Liberty Counsel has been boasting about its 9-0 Court victory to allow a “Christian flag” to fly on city of Boston property.

The group also filed an amicus brief in the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. It has cases in lower courts that will likely find their way to the Supreme Court. If the justices want religious counseling, surely they could find other religious leaders not affiliated with groups doing business before the Court.

Inevitably, the backpedaling and faux outrage began almost immediately. Faith & Liberty issued a statement proclaiming the article “false.” “The instances referred to in the article go back many years prior to when Liberty Counsel assumed the Faith & Liberty prayer ministry,” the statement insisted.

Rob Schenck, who founded the ministry and turned it over to Liberty Counsel in 2018, says he used to pray with the justices at the Court, specifically Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Nienaber worked for Schenck and continued with the group after Liberty Counsel took it over.

Still Nienaber implied that the prayer sessions were more current. Perhaps she was trying to impress the livestreamer with her access or maybe she just got carried away. Maybe she didn’t distinguish between the pre-Liberty Counsel era and the present.

Her boss, Mat Staver, didn’t have a problem throwing her under the bus. “There is just no way that has happened,” he told Rolling Stone. When asked if he had an explanation for Nienaber’s remarks, he replied, “I don’t.”

The right-wing outrage factory focused on the fact that the media was complaining about prayer, which is hardly the issue. Faith & Liberty linked to several articles that described the Rolling Stone article as “calumny” and “elite media manipulation of facts.”

All of which conveniently ignores the obvious conflict of interest – or at a bare minimum the appearance of a conflict of interest – that the story represents. (Of course, when the wife of one of the justices is heavily involved in trying to overturn a legitimate election, that seems the least of our worries.)

Lost in the shuffle was that fact that two sitting justices of the current Court – the two who have been outspoken in their call to overturn marriage equality – still sought religious counsel from a right-wing organization in their chambers. Surely, that’s a bright line that should never have been crossed. But then again, the conservative wing of the Court is all about crossing bright lines these days.

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