Disputed parenting study introduced in court case challenging DOMA
Just one day after the results of a controversial parenting study were released to the public, the research was used – and misrepresented – in a federal court brief defending the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act.
The brief was filed by a conservative medical group at the urging of the Alliance Defending Freedom, an influential religious right legal organization. It illustrates the right’s strategy of using the new research – which was funded by two conservative organizations – in legal battles to preserve bans on gay marriage.
On June 10, the journal Social Science Research published the findings of University of Texas sociologist Mark Regnerus’ “New Family Structures Study,” which compared people raised in biologically intact two-parent families to people raised in families in which one of the parents had a same-sex romantic relationship at some point. Regnerus found that the children of parents who had a same-sex relationship fared poorly by comparison. Almost immediately, the study was criticized for using a “loaded classification system” to engage in an apples-to-oranges comparison.
The day after Regnerus’ study first appeared online, a conservative group called the American College of Pediatricians cited it in a “friend of the court” brief in Golinski v. United States Office of Personnel Management, one of the ongoing federal lawsuits challenging DOMA. The ACP’s use of the study was first reported on The New Civil Rights Movement website.
In February, a federal district court had ruled that a key section of DOMA was unconstitutional. In its brief to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the Gainesville, Fla.-based pediatricians’ group noted that the district judge had cited research concluding that children were not harmed by being raised by same-sex parents.
“The court below did not have at its disposal the most current research on child outcomes for children raised by same-sex couples,” argued the ACP, referring to Regnerus’ newly released research. The brief then summarized “some of the statistically significant differences where children raised by two women fared worse than children raised by married biological parents” — including “cohabitation,” “receiving welfare while growing up,” “currently receiving public assistance,” “current employment,” “current unemployment,” “having an affair while married or cohabiting,” “having been touched sexually by a parent or other adult,” and “ever having been forced to have sex against their will.”
ACP is a nonprofit group with a history of controversial statements. Its website describes same-sex parenting as “potentially hazardous to children” and elsewhere asserts that “sexual reorientation therapy can be effective.”
In an interview, ACP President Dr. Den Trumbull said that his group was asked to write the brief by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian legal organization based in Scottsdale, Ariz., that was known until this month as the Alliance Defense Fund.
Trumbull, who is a pediatrician in Montgomery, Ala., said the Alliance Defending Freedom’s legal department contacted the ACP about a week or two before the brief was filed.
“It was brought to our attention that there was a need for some clarification on the benefits of marriage versus same-sex unions, civil unions, or other configurations of marriage,” Trumbull said. “We are there to assist policymakers in any way we can to help them understand or publicize the correct science.”
The Alliance Defending Freedom, which was co-founded by Focus on the Family’s James Dobson and boasts a $34 million budget, confirmed this account. An official with the legal group said in an email that it had suggested that ACP file the brief “because of the organization’s valuable contribution to studying how parenting structure impacts child outcomes, and especially their research concluding that the ideal structure is a married mother and father.”
The brief references a number of academic studies. Both the Alliance Defending Freedom and the ACP said they did not receive an advance copy of Regnerus’ study.
Misrepresenting the study
Trumbull’s group also misrepresented Regnerus’ research in a way that obscures some of the harshest criticism of the study.
The ACP’s brief repeatedly asserts that the study assessed outcomes for “children raised by same-sex couples” or “children raised by two women” or “two men.”
But what Regnerus actually did was compare people who spent their entire childhood living with their married, biological parents to people who grew up in a family in which at least one of their parents had a same-sex romantic relationship at some point. In other words, the group of people Regnerus coded as having a “gay father” or a “lesbian mother” consisted not simply of people raised by two same-sex parents, but also of people raised by parents who were separated or divorced or whose parents had same-sex affairs.
Indeed, only a small percentage of the children Regnerus coded as having gay parents said they had been raised in a same-sex household for more than a few years. According to the study:
Among those who said their mother had a same-sex relationship, 91% reported living with their mother while she was in the romantic relationship, and 57% said they had lived with their mother and her partner for at least 4 months at some point prior to age 18. A smaller share (23%) said they had spent at least 3 years living in the same household with a romantic partner of their mother’s.
Among those who said their father had a same-sex relationship, however, 42% reported living with him while he was in a same-sex romantic relationship, and 23% reported living with him and his partner for at least 4 months (but less than 2% said they had spent at least 3 years together in the same household) …
Regnerus, who did not respond to a request for comment, has further acknowledged: “We had only two cases in which mom and her partner were together for 18 years. We’ve got only six cases where mom and her partner were reported to have stayed together for 10 or more years, and 18 cases for five years.”
Slate’s William Saletan has criticized this methodology as a “loaded classification system” that “produced predictable results.” Saletan suggested that the study actually bolstered the case for gay marriage, writing that it shows that “kids from broken homes headed by gay people develop the same problems as kids from broken homes headed by straight people.”
Debra Umberson, a sociology professor and colleague of Regnerus’ at the University of Texas, called the study “irresponsible and reckless” and labeled it “pseudo-science.”
Asked about the discrepancy, Trumbull defended the ACP’s brief. He said his group believes that Regnerus’ study compares children raised by married biological parents to those raised by same-sex couples. He said the fact that most of the supposed gay parents Regnerus’ study looked at were not intact couples likely had more to do with what he suggested was the unstable nature of same-sex relationships than it did with a flaw in the study’s design.
“The American College of Pediatricians stands by its amicus brief,” he said.
Though Trumbull said that the New Family Structures Study was “not a perfect study,” he argued that the study’s merits outweighed its weaknesses and that it was “worthy of the court knowing.”
“That study was the first large, randomized sample looking at the comparison between those raised by adults in same-sex relationships with those raised by heterosexual couples,” he said. “The reason we feel this study is useful is it counters the strong unequivocal conclusions that other researchers have made from much weaker studies saying the child outcomes of those raised by same sex parents is equal.”
“There’s not enough data for society or the courts to move away from the fundamental position that the optimal environment [for children] is the biological married heterosexual family,” Trumbull continued.
The ACP brief appears to be consistent with a strategy put forward by prominent opponents of same-sex marriage after the release of Regnerus’ research.
Maggie Gallagher, who co-founded the National Organization for Marriage, said on the Christian Broadcasting Network that the study would be “important in the legal cases as they progress.”
Matthew J. Franck of the Witherspoon Institute – the group that funded the bulk of Regnerus’ study and whose co-founder, Robert George, is also NOM’s chairman emeritus – has similarly predicted that the new study will be useful in the courts.
“How much does this new study matter for the legal debate over same-sex marriage? A very great deal,” Franck wrote. “Same-sex marriage advocates have argued in state and federal courts that traditional marriage laws have no ‘rational basis,’ or that they fail some other more stringent form of ‘scrutiny’ under constitutional provisions guaranteeing due process and the equal protection of the laws.”
Frank concluded that when lawsuits over DOMA and California’s same-sex marriage ban reach the Supreme Court, “the counsels of good social science can be added to the standard norms of constitutionalism to counsel against the willful judicial invention of a right to same-sex marriage.”
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