By Andy Birkey
MINNEAPOLIS -- A dozen groups fighting against marriage equality are touting a controversial study about gay and lesbian parenting that was funded by two conservative organizations.
The study, released early last week, quickly became a political weapon in campaigns for state-level ballot measures banning same-sex marriage. Groups with close relationships to the study's funders immediately began promoting it as evidence that children might be harmed by being raised by gays and lesbians. And some of these same groups now hope to use the study to convince courts that same-sex marriage bans are constitutional.
Conducted by sociologist Mark Regnerus at the University of Texas, the study looked at the children of families in which one biological parent had a same-sex relationship at some point. Regnerus then compared them to people who spent their entire childhood in intact opposite-sex households with both biological parents. All of those surveyed were between 18 and 39 years old when the study was conducted. Regnerus found that the children whose parents had a same-sex relationship fared poorly in comparison in a number of areas, though he was careful to note that his study did not establish that the parents' sexual orientation caused those differences.
The study's methodology -- comparing biological intact families with families that may or may not have been intact -- provoked criticism from many quarters.
Writing at Slate, Will Saleton observed that Regnerus used a "loaded classification system" that "produced predictable results."
"These findings shouldn't surprise us, because this isn't a study of gay couples who decided to have kids," wrote Saleton. "It's a study of people who engaged in same-sex relationships—and often broke up their households—decades ago."
He added, "What the study shows, then, is that kids from broken homes headed by gay people develop the same problems as kids from broken homes headed by straight people."
Saleton suggested, contrary to the opinion of conservative groups, that the study might actually bolster the argument for gay marriage.
The study was funded by the Witherspoon Institute with a grant totaling $695,000. The Witherspoon Institute is a conservative think tank founded by prominent Catholic intellectuals Luis Tellez and Robert George. George, a professor at Princeton University, also sits on the board of the Bradley Foundation, which gave Regnerus another $90,000 for the study.
Groups closely connected to the Witherspoon Institute and Bradley Foundation touted the study last week as evidence that gay parenting poses risks for children, and that intact, opposite-sex couples make the best parents.
The National Organization for Marriage, which was co-founded by George and shares several board members with the Witherspoon Institute, devoted five blog posts to the study the week it was released.
NOM blogged about an article and an editorial on the study published by the Deseret News, which is owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. George serves on that paper's "editorial advisory board."
NOM also included a roundup of articles and editorials about the study.
NOM President Brian Brown addressed the study on Friday.
"This tells me something really important: gay marriage is not about helping children," he wrote. "The 'Modern Family' we see on TV and relayed in the media is vanishingly rare. We aren't seriously contemplating gay marriage because it will protect the children."
State-based groups have also been promoting the study in their fight against same-sex marriage.
Minnesota for Marriage, a group campaigning for a state constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage, said the study showed "risks" to children of same-sex couples.
"New study suggests risks from same-sex parenting. '...empirical claim that no notable differences exist must go,'" the group said on Twitter.
And on Facebook, the group wrote, "New, highly respected, rigorous study shows that 'the empirical claim that no notable differences exist must go.'"
Preserve Marriage Washington, a group working to repeal Washington's recent law making same-sex marriage legal, took to Facebook to promote the study.
"Kids are in no way better off," Protect Marriage Washington wrote. "A new study on same-sex parenting by Mark Regnerus of the University of Texas was released yesterday."
On Facebook, Protect Marriage Maine -- which is opposing a ballot initiative that would legalize same-sex marriage -- posted an infographic created by the Washington Times along with a quote from Regnerus.
NOM has close ties to all three of these state groups.
Protect Marriage Washington has hired Chris Plante, a NOM staffer, to help run the campaign in Washington, and NOM has given $208,000 to support the Minnesota for Marriage campaign. NOM joined with the Christian Civic League of Maine to form Protect Marriage Maine earlier this year.
Opponents of same-sex marriage are also planning to use the study in their efforts to defend against lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of same-sex marriage bans.
"I think it's going to be important in the legal cases as they progress," Gallagher told Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network last week.
Indeed, academic studies have long been part of the legal arguments put forth by NOM and its allies. In a brief (PDF) filed two years ago defending California's Proposition 8, a 2008 referendum that ended same-sex marriage in that state, NOM wrote, "A large body of social science research confirms the significance of marriage for child well-being, in contrast to a limited body of emerging research on gay parenting."
Matthew J. Franck, director of Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute -- the group that heavily funded Regnerus' research -- agreed that it, along with another recent study, would be a valuable asset in the courts.
"Judges and justices who reasoned in favor of same-sex marriage based on social scientists' 'no differences' thesis must now contend with better research: Heterosexual married couples offer the best family structure for children, according to a new, rigorously researched sociological study," wrote Franck. "How much does this new study matter for the legal debate over same-sex marriage? A very great deal. 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."
According to Franck, "As the Perry case on Prop 8, and related litigation on the Defense of Marriage Act, 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."
"Scientifically this is huge," she wrote.
She penned a column for the conservative Town Hall under the headline, "The Gay Murphy Brown Effect."
Another NOM-connected group, the Love and Fidelity Network, also promoted the study.
"In this reputable and newly-released study, Sociologist Mark Regnerus reveals how children fare better across measurable indicators when they are raised in a stable intact home with their mother and their fathers, as opposed to same-sex families," the group wrote. "Some have called it 'the gold standard' of research, while others might speculate the significance it has for the same-sex marriage debate."
The Love and Fidelity Network shares an office with the Witherspoon Institute. Gallagher and George, the founders of NOM, are on the Network's advisory board. Luis Tellez, who founded the Witherspoon Institute with George, is also on the advisory board of the Love and Fidelity Network.
For its part, the Witherspoon Institute wrote a lengthy analysis of Regnerus' study under the headline, "The Kids Aren't All Right: New Family Structures and the 'No Differences' Claim."
The institute's research scholar, Ana Samuel, concluded: "In particular, the NFSS provides evidence that previous generations of social scientists were unable to gather: that children from intact, biological families also out-perform peers who were raised in homes of a parent who had same-sex relationships. Therefore, these two new studies reaffirm—and strengthen—the conviction that the gold standard for raising children is still the intact, biological family."
The Witherspoon Institute also launched a website featuring Regnerus' data.
The use of Regnerus' study by NOM and its allies aligns closely with the organization's 2009 internal strategy documents that were released in court filings earlier this year.
NOM outlined what it called its "Expert Witness Project," an effort to "identify and nurture a worldwide community of highly credentialed intellectuals and professional scholars, physicians, psychiatrists, social workers, and writers to credential our concerns and to interrupt the silencing that takes place in the academy around gay marriage and related family issues." According to NOM, "Marriage as the union of husband and wife has deep grounding in human nature, and is supported by serious social science."
In a video interview with the Daily Texan, Regnerus was asked about the funding behind the study.
"I had a feeling that when we started this project that it would not survive the politics, if you ask me, of the peer-review system of [the National Institutes of Health], and it takes so long to get money from them and revision and revisions," he said. "[The Witherspoon Institute and the Bradley Foundation] were willing to take a chance on this and so I was willing to do that."
Regnerus brushed off the suggestion that Robert George might be pleased with the study.
"Prof. George is a philosopher. I don't think he has much to say about sampling theory. Whether he likes the study or not ... I don't have anything to do with what happens next from the left or the right."
In the write-up of the Study, Regnerus said that "the funding sources played no role at all in the design or conduct of the study, the analyses, the interpretations of the data, or in the preparation of this manuscript."
Other groups opposed to equal rights for LGBT Americans jumped on the study as evidence that gay and lesbian couples do not make good parents.
Focus on the Family's Citizenlink interviewed spokespeople from within its organization.
"All the other studies that have come out on how kids do in same-sex homes are all done by lesbian activist scholars," said Glenn Stanton, Focus on the Family's director of Global Family Formation Studies. "They have found either there's no difference between the two kinds of homes, or that the kids actually do better (in homosexual-led households). ... Regnerus's study shows nothing could be further from the truth."
Stanton testified against a civil unions bill in Colorado in May, dismissing research suggesing that same-sex couples are equally good parents as opposite-sex couples: "The supposed research that shows kids from same-sex families do fine ... is fraught with remarkably serious methodological problems, essentially rendering them useless in telling us anything valuable about two-mom two-dad families and their impact on child well-being."
Gary Bauer of American Values, in an email to supporters, said, "If the left insists on fundamentally redefining the institution of marriage, the foundation of healthy families and societies, then the left bears the burden of demonstrating that it is beneficial for the children likely to be involved in this radical experiment. These new studies clearly indicate that the militant homosexual movement is a long way from meeting that standard."
The Family Policy Institute of Washington, an affiliate of the Family Research Council, alerted its supporters to the study in an email. "The debate over redefining marriage is a question about whether there is any difference between a relationship involving a man and a woman and one with people of the same gender," the group wrote. "A study released on Sunday, by Professor Mark Regnerus from the University of Texas, found that there was actually a dramatic difference for children raised in a married mother/father household and children raised by two parents of the same gender."