Does the Religious Right Really Care about Children?

For years the religious right has done all it could to cast gay people as existing outside the family. It's part of a messaging strategy to define them as shifty, rootless individualists who threaten precious institutions that symbolize group cohesion. But in anointing themselves the champions of "family values" and protectors of vulnerable children, religious conservatives have had little to say when confronted with the undeniable existence of actual gay families--particularly kids with LGBT parents.

Now, a groundbreaking report released this week by a coalition of progressive family advocates and researchers has stopped the religious right in its tracks, with the most comprehensive look at how its vaunted opposition to LGBT equality is actually harming up to two million children living in LGBT households.

The report, "All Children Matter" (for which I was a consulting writer), finds that discriminatory and outdated laws make it harder for children with LGBT parents to obtain legal recognition of their relationship with their own parents; and that this, and a narrow definition of "family" across government programs, actually deprives children of the same financial and social protections that their peers in heterosexual families enjoy. This is a particular problem for poor and minority families, which the report finds characterize a disproportionate number of LGBT-headed households. These are the families that most need the support that others take for granted.

The report--a collaboration among Family Equality Council, Center for American Progress and the Movement Advancement Project, in partnership with the National Association of Social Workers and others--is an unprecedented effort to bring attention to the plight of children who are falling through the cracks for reasons that are easily avoidable: not because of intractable problems like famine, disease and war, but because of ignorance, political inertia, and the irresponsible effort by some to punish children just because of who their parents are. Though the full report is 125 pages, let me try to boil it down to a few key points.

First, efforts by anti-gay activists have resulted in discriminatory adoption laws and practices. Even where adoption by gay people is not technically banned, restrictions, preferences and exclusions of unmarried couples extend the wait time of the roughly 115,000 foster children awaiting "forever homes"--sometimes indefinitely. (Excluding unmarried couples is a workaround to ban gay couples without saying so, since most states don't allow gay couples to marry.) Astoundingly, in the name of "family values," some states and adoption agencies would rather let foster kids flounder in temporary care than place them with a loving LGBT parent or couple--even though decades of social science research has found that kids of LGBT parents do just as well as other children. This kind of discrimination hurts kids and denigrates LGBT prospective parents, while helping no one but career anti-gay activists who play politics with kids' lives to fill their fundraising coffers and make themselves feel virtuous.

Second, the problem is not one of outright bans on LGBT people adopting waiting children, since courts have consistently struck these down as unconstitutional. Instead, the problem is broader, and affects existing LGBT families, not just prospective adoptive households. Most heterosexual couples have an automatic legal relation to their children, which usually flows from the law's recognition of biological or marital ties. But for the majority of same-sex couples, securing a legal relationship to your own child can be difficult or impossible. A same-sex couple having a child always relies on help from a third party's genetic material. So whether they adopt or use assisted reproduction, they need laws capable of securing legal ties to both functioning parents. A "second-parent adoption" for the non-biological parent is one route to establishing this security.

Yet, in part as a result of anti-gay efforts, some states ban second-parent adoptions and refuse to recognize both members of the couple as legal parents--despite holy rhetoric about the benefits of having two parents. The result is that a parent can be considered a legal stranger to a child she may have mothered since birth; that child is then denied the security of medical decision-making, access to insurance, survivor benefits and numerous other protections that family law exists to provide. In some cases, children born to straight couples using assisted reproduction are ensnared in the same legal failures. Simply put, the law has not caught up to the way today's families actually live.

Third, these inequities have profound economic consequences for struggling families. The report shows that a typical LGBT family pays $2200 more in taxes per year due to the law's refusal to recognize them as a "family." They can pay more than $3000 per year extra for health insurance. If one parent dies, the family can face an extra financial burden of nearly $220,000 across 18 years--all because the law doesn't recognize their family for purposes of Social Security and other protections.

The harm all this inequity causes is no abstract matter, and the report includes real stories of the devastation wrought by unequal treatment. In West Virginia, a five-year-old boy's mother was killed in a car accident, and even though his surviving mother had raised the boy with her partner since the boy's birth, a court denied her custody claim since the state did not recognize her as a legal parent. The court ordered the boy to go live with his grandparents instead. In another heart-wrenching case, a New Jersey woman died of a brain aneurism and left behind her same-sex partner and their son. When the family applied for Social Security survivor benefits--thousands of dollars per year that would have gone to any heterosexual family, the application was denied because the boy's deceased mother was not the genetic mother. In the eyes of the law she was a legal stranger to the family she loved.

Despite clear evidence that anti-gay laws hurt, rather than help, children, the response to the report by the religious right has been swift, if predictably incoherent: clearly without reading the report, the Family Research Council (FRC) disputed the figure of two million kids with a gay parent, calling it "highly unlikely." While it can be fun to live by hunches, those living in the fact-based universe can see page 118 of the report for a lengthy explanation of the eight separate data sources, including six surveys from which the report derived its conservative estimate of two million kids with an LGBT parent. FRC blindly reiterated its baseless talking point that "the most effective arguments for protecting man-woman marriage have to do with the well-being of children," without being able to dispute the evidence that marriage restrictions are now hurting kids. They insisted that "the destruction of the natural family is the greater threat" of LGBT equality--without offering a whit of evidence. And they quoted the anti-gay scholar, Stanley Kurtz, who claimed that the recognition of gay unions in Europe swelled out-of-wedlock births there--except that I and others debunked his quack "science" seven years ago, in which he assumed a cause that was nowhere proven.

Most people really do want to support policies that serve the best interests of kids. But we absolutely must move beyond the religious right's fixation on punishing gays if we really wish to do right by the nation's kids. Fortunately, the report makes clear what can be done. States can bar discrimination in adoption and fostering and ensure that, where a couple seeks to adopt, both partners are recognized as legal parents. They can easily revise their parenting laws to ensure that those who intend to, and do, function as parents, with the consent of their partners, are recognized as legal parents through mechanisms like second-parent adoptions. The freedom for same-sex couples to marry, although not essential to parental recognition, would make that recognition far simpler. Government regulations can expand the definition of "family" to reflect they way 21st-century families actually live. And more research and sharing of best practices can help create greater cultural competency for institutions and individuals that serve LGBT families.

Federal law can also play a role. A bill in Congress called the "Every Child Deserves a Family" Act would require states that accept federal adoption funds to bar discrimination in adoption and foster placement. The bill was introduced in May by Rep. Pete Stark of California, and today it was reported that Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York will be leading the push in the Senate. President Obama has said more should be done "to support and strengthen LGBT families" including extending "equal treatment in our family and adoption laws." Now's the time for the White House to help make that a reality by showing strong support for this family-friendly bill.

This "must-read" report, says the respected legal scholar, Nancy Polikoff, is "not just one more report on children of LGBT parents. It is, instead, the gold standard against which every other assessment of the needs of children of LGBT parents will be measured for well into the future." It offers a straight--but not narrow--roadmap to giving permanency, security and dignity to children regardless of the sexual orientation or gender identity of their parents. If there's one thing Americans should agree on, it's that no one should use children as pawns in the culture wars.