In the run-up to Amy Coney Barrett’s Senate confirmation, AP reported exclusively on her leadership position in private schools espousing anti-gay views.
The records and writings of Supreme Court nominees are scrutinized for signs of how they may vote on important issues, but Amy Coney Barrett’s jurisprudence told little about her views on gay rights.
Providence, Rhode Island, correspondent Michelle R. Smith and Washington-based investigative reporter Michael Biesecker knew that Barrett’s ties to People of Praise, a religious group with anti-gay views, could be an important part of her confirmation process. Through dogged reporting they were able to show that Barrett was a trustee at a group of People of Praise-run schools that had anti-gay teachings. As part of their work, the pair spoke to people who said they experienced the institutions’ discriminatory policies and conditions.
Smith and Biesecker had already encountered secrecy around Barrett’s People of Praise connections. They previously won the Beat of the States prize for showing how the group had scrubbed mentions of Barrett from its websites.
In seeking information on her views on gay rights, Smith and Biesecker encountered numerous roadblocks, including sources reluctant to go on the record because they said they feared retribution for themselves or their families. But their persistence paid off. A former tour guide at one of the schools recounted being told by the now-president of the school to tell gay students and families they were not welcome. Another source, a former student whose father was killed outside a gay club, recounted that while she was still grieving, a teacher told her classroom that gay people go to hell. The woman said when she challenged the teacher, she was told she would go to hell too.
In all, Smith and Biesecker spoke to more than two dozen people for the story, gaining the trust of several by explaining why the story was important, and that they could rely on The Associated Press to get it right.
The story had an immediate impact on discussion about Barrett’s views and their influence on rulings in upcoming cases in the run-up to her Senate confirmation.
Major broadcast and online news organizations ran the report and, in some cases, highlighted it, including MSN, CNN, NBC, Yahoo!, MSNBC and The New York Times, and it also figured in the heated debate on Capitol Hill over Barrett’s confirmation. It ran on several print newspaper front pages, including in St. Paul, Minnesota, near one of the People of Praise schools.
For thorough and groundbreaking reporting on the tightly held views of a Supreme Court justice likely to sit in judgment of high-profile gay rights cases, Smith and Biesecker win AP’s Best of the Week award.