If someone whose cases were in front of the Supreme Court had dinner and drinks with some of the justices right before the oral arguments took place, and then the Supreme Court voted in that person’s favor, would that be ethical? Of course not. There shouldn’t be any substantive interaction between judges and the people whose cases are before them, if for no other reason than to maintain an air of impartiality.
And yet a Christian nationalist named Peggy Nienaber, who serves as executive director of DC Ministry, an extension of the conservative Christian group Liberty Counsel, bragged out loud that she prays with Supreme Court justices (plural)—an act most Christians would say is far more intimate than mere wining and dining. That’s especially concerning when you realize the Dobbs decision that overturned Roe v. Wade cited her group’s amicus brief when restricting abortion access nationwide.
The admission was caught on a hot mic with conservative YouTuber Corinne IRL and reported by Rolling Stone‘s Kara Voght and Tim Dickinson. While the conversation is easy to miss in a two-hour livestream that took place outside the Supreme Court days after the Dobbs ruling, Nienaber clearly suggests around the 43:12 mark that she regularly meets up with justices for prayer sessions:
“You actually pray with the Supreme Court justices?” the livestreamer asked. “I do,” Nienaber said. “They will pray with us, those that like us to pray with them.” She did not specify which justices prayed with her, but added with a chortle, “Some of them don’t!” The livestreamer then asked if Nienaber ministered to the justices in their homes or at her office. Neither, she said. “We actually go in there.”
Nienaber also says the conversation is “off the record,” implying that she doesn’t know she’s being recorded (much less live-streamed), but there’s no mistaking her claim: Her ministry meets with Supreme Court justices to bond over their shared faith, while at the same time, her group is putting cases in front of those very justices.
When confronted with these details, the reaction from the head of Liberty Counsel went from denial to rationalization to pleading ignorance:
The Supreme Court did not respond to a request for comment. Liberty Counsel’s founder, Mat Staver, strenuously denied that the in-person ministering to justices that Nienaber bragged about exists. “It’s entirely untrue,” Staver tells Rolling Stone. “There is just no way that has happened.” He adds: “She has prayer meetings for them, not with them.” Asked if he had an explanation for Nienaber’s direct comments to the contrary, Staver says, “I don’t.”
Staver later added: “We just would never do something like that.”
In case anyone thinks this is innocuous, can you even think of an analogous situation that involves a non-Christian group that wouldn’t elicit cries of “inappropriate behavior!” by right-wing commentators?
This isn’t about the prayers. This is about a Christian Right group having private meetings with Supreme Court justices in order to reinforce a shared bond. There is no equivalent with the liberal justices. One side cares about ethics. The other doesn’t. And all this is happening while the Supreme Court consistently rules in the Christian Right’s favor.
When Nienaber was asked about the claims she made on camera, she immediately changed her tune:
Nienaber told Rolling Stone, “I do not socialize with the justices.” Yet she has posed for photos with Justices Kavanaugh and Thomas, calling the latter a “friend” in a Facebook post, praising him for “passing by our ministry center to attend church and always taking time to say hello.”
So was she lying on camera? Or does she just not consider praying a form of socializing? Notice that she didn’t say she never meets with the justices at all.
Meanwhile, one of her colleagues was less evasive:
Last week, Rolling Stone spoke to Patty Bills, the director of constituency affairs at Faith & Liberty. Bills did not want to discuss Faith & Liberty’s ministry practices, citing privacy concerns. Bills would not, however, deny that Faith & Liberty ministers to Supreme Court justices. “I never said we didn’t — I just said we provide privacy,” she said.
After Rolling Stone published its article, with the damning video evidence right there for the public to see, Nienaber finally admitted the truth: She has prayed with the justices… but it’s all in the past!
… after this story was published, Nienaber acknowledged her remarks and conceded she has prayed personally with Supreme Court justices. Despite speaking in the present tense on the livestream, Nienaber asserted, “My comment was referring to past history and not practice of the past several years.” Nienaber added: “During most of the history up to early 2020, I met with many people who wanted or needed prayer. Since early 2020, access to the Supreme Court has been restricted due to COVID. It has been many years since I prayed with a Justice.”
There’s no reason to think she’s telling the truth now when she’s been caught in multiple lies. Staver, too, has built his career on spreading lies to gullible Christians. His emails over the past couple of years have included countless lies about COVID and the vaccines. The Christian hate group also has a long history of spreading harmful myths about LGBTQ people.
So, again, which is it? Staver said they would never pray with the justices and create this conflict of interest. Nienaber says in the video she prays (present tense) with the justices. And she now says she prayed (past tense) with the justices. It’s just a constantly changing story because none of these people know how to tell the truth. Their Christian faith permits them to tell lie after lie in the name of Jesus.
Incidentally, Nienaber bragged in a 2019 video (found by The New Civil Rights Movement) that she prays with the justices:
… Inside of there [pointing to the Supreme Court] is one of our mission fields. And yes, we go in and pray with the justices… We go in there.
So much for Mat Staver saying they “would never do something like that.” Nienaber said it had been “many years” since she prayed with the justices, but when was the last time? Why won’t she say?
If we weren’t talking about Christianity, groups like Liberty Counsel would never stop whining about it. And the truth is, they would have a good point. But when right-wing hate groups are meeting with Supreme Court justices to bond over Christ, it’s somehow perfectly fine?
In theory, there’s nothing wrong with outsiders meeting up with justices even if they may cross paths in the courtroom… as long as they’re not talking about the cases specifically. It’s the same reason the justices can give interviews on late night talk shows as long as they’re not tipping their hat about how they might rule on specific cases. The perception of favoritism is the problem. In the case of Christian nationalists like Nienaber, though, she can have the best of both worlds. If she’s tight enough with some of the justices to the point where they gather to pray, there’s no need to talk about the cases themselves because the winks and nudges are inherent in the act.
It’s not just me saying that. Rob Schenck founded the ministry that Nienaber now runs; he left it in 2018 and has been a vocal critic of the cozy relationship between conservative Christians and the Republican Party ever since. Schenck says he met with justices all the time when he ran the group precisely in the hopes that he’d influence them:
To pray with the justices was to perform a sort of “spiritual conditioning,” Schenck explains. “The intention all along was to embolden the conservative justices by loaning them a kind of spiritual moral support — to give them an assurance that not only was there a large number of people behind them, but in fact, there was divine support for very strong and unapologetic opinions from them.”
Schenck said some of those prayers involved ending abortion, albeit in general terms and not referring to specific cases. While his involvement with the ministry ended a while ago, is there any reason to doubt the more recent prayers involving Nienaber didn’t just mention Christ but referred to abortion or LGBTQ people using whatever synonyms are in vogue in Christian circles?
The worst thing about this whole story is knowing nothing will come of it. Republicans don’t care about these conflicts of interest since they benefit their side. Any criticism of what’s happening here will inevitably be condemned as “anti-Christian.” Democrats don’t have the political will to call for court reform. And the justices themselves have repeatedly rejected calls for ethics reform, as if they’re impervious to bad behavior.
It all leads to a system of justice in name only.
Conservative Christians control the Court, and Nienaber’s admission shows how close Religious Right groups are with sitting justices who are ruling on their cases. It’s all just a giant game to them. Unfortunately for the country, the game is rigged in a way to hurt as many people as possible under the mantle of “religious freedom.”