In new hot mic audio obtained by Rolling Stone, Peggy Nienaber, executive director of Liberty Counsel’s D.C. ministry, bragged about praying with Supreme Court Justices at the court. Liberty Counsel authored an amicus brief in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health case, in which the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and ended the federal right to abortion last month.
Per the Rolling Stone’s Wednesday report, during a celebration marking the fall of Roe, someone on a livestream asked Nienabar, “You actually pray with the Supreme Court justices?” Nienaber responded: “I do. They will pray with us, those that like us to pray with them.” As for where these prayers are happening, Nienaber indicated they’re taking place inside the Supreme Court: “We actually go in there.”
Several experts on judicial conflicts of interest and Supreme Court recusals who spoke to Rolling Stone are in agreement that what Nienabar described presents “a problem” and possible conflict of interest, given Liberty Counsel’s role in the Dobbs case. (And while Christian leaders have apparently been praying for and discussing the end of abortion rights inside the court, outside, highly militarized police officers have been enforcing a buffer zone to shut out abortion rights protesters.)
Liberty Counsel’s founder, Mat Staver, has since denied Nienaber’s claims to the magazine, stating outright, “There is just no way that has happened,” and tried to distinguish that Nienaber “has prayer meetings for [the justices], not with them.” Staver acknowledged to Rolling Stone that if such prayers are taking place, it would be “inappropriate,” given Liberty Counsel’s extensive litigation efforts to end abortion and advance other far-right causes. But Nienaber’s DC Ministry—which operated as a separate entity from Liberty Counsel called Faith and Action in the Nation’s Capital prior to 2018—has a long history of praying with justices and building relationships with powerful, right-wing political leaders to influence policymaking.
Faith and Action was originally founded by a man named Rob Schenck, who has recounted praying and building relationships with Supreme Court Justices Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, and the late Antonin Scalia in detail in his autobiography. This was precisely his ministry’s goal, Schneck wrote: building access “higher and higher up within the government, until we got to the top, my ultimate target—members of Congress, U.S. senators, cabinet secretaries, Supreme Court justices—even presidents.”
He also explains why his ministry most emphatically targeted justices: “We knew we were stuck with members of the federal bench—they were appointed for life—so why not convert them while in office?” Nienaber echoed these sentiments in 2021, when she said in an interview that her ministry is devoted to “changing the hearts and minds of not only our elected officials, but the staffers all the way down.”
Schneck has since disavowed the practices of Faith and Action (now Liberty Counsel’s DC Ministry under Nienaber), and elaborated on the impact of prayers with Supreme Court justices to Rolling Stone: “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.” (If the justices needed persuading that ending abortion rights is popular, that’s because it very much is not: Eight in 10 Americans support the legal right to abortion.) Schneck said prayers with justices could sometimes be “general,” but also frequently entailed specific subjects, like abortion.
Contrary Nienaber’s denials to Rolling Stone that she “[does] not socialize with the justices,” her social media posts include photos of her posing with Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Thomas, the latter of whom she called a “friend” and thanked for “passing by our ministry center to attend church and always taking time to say hello.”
Overturning Roe has already had disastrous, entirely predictable consequences: Several states have immediately banned abortion, with others poised to follow suit. Last week, a 10-year-old rape victim was forced to travel from Ohio to Indiana to access legal abortion care. Abortion rights aren’t just popular—they’re essential to public health and the safety and dignity of pregnant people. But, at least in part because a small group of religious extremists has the ear of the most powerful elites in this country, this is the world we’re now living in.