Parade of witnesses begins in Detroit gay marriage trial

First experts in landmark Michigan case testify that when it comes to same-sex parents, the kids should be fine

Supporters and opponents showed up Tuesday in front of the federal courthouse in Detroit for the first day of the gay marriage trial.
Mandi Wright/Detroit Free Press/AP

DETROIT — On the opening day of Michigan’s landmark gay marriage trial, attorneys and an expert for a lesbian couple hit repeatedly on the same theme: Whether the parents are gay or straight, the kids are usually all right.

The recitation of data and references to scientific consensus on the issue on Tuesday kicked off what is likely to be a weeklong parade of testimony designed to pre-emptively undermine the state’s core argument: that intact heterosexual-led families are superior to any other configuration.

Attorney Carole Stayner, representing plaintiffs April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse in their lawsuit charging discrimination in the state’s marriage and adoption laws, insisted in her opening statement that the state is wrong.

“We really hope we can resolve once and for all whether or not gay and lesbian people can make good parents,” Stayner said. “We want to be thorough. We would like this to be the last trial in America where same-sex parents have to defend themselves.”

The proceedings are unusual, even in this age of constant litigation over marriage rights across the nation. Judges in recent years have ruled on the constitutionality of bans on same-sex marriage based on written testimony, but Federal Judge Bernard Friedman opted in October to hold a trial rather than rule.

DeBoer and Rowse, both nurses in the Detroit area, sued Michigan in 2012 to co-adopt each other’s children. Friedman expanded the scope of their case to weigh the same-sex marriage ban, which was approved by statewide voter referendum in 2004.

The state is vigorously defending the law by focusing largely on the premise that children raised by same-sex parents are harmed by their parents’ sexual orientation. Their star witness is expected to be University of Texas at Austin sociologist Mark Regnerus, who led a study, published in Social Science Research in 2012, that found children raised by gay couples were psychologically harmed.

No difference

Regnerus, who declined comment, is not expected to appear until the end of this week or early next week. Yet plaintiff witnesses were already attacking his work, noting that Social Science Research ordered an internal audit that found his study should never have been published because it drew improper conclusions.

Same-sex marriage is legal in 17 states and the District of Columbia. Gay couples suing in Utah, Virginia, Nevada, Oregon and several other states seek similar rulings. The U.S. Supreme Court last June upheld a federal court decision to strike down a gay marriage ban in California and to assert that gays deserve protection against discrimination under the Constitution.

In Detroit the plaintiffs called the first two of an expected dozen witnesses, to discuss the social science surrounding the welfare of children of same-sex couples. Other witnesses on the official list are expected to attack same-sex marriage bans on grounds that it discriminates in various legal and financial ways.

The defense’s witness list names five people, including Regnerus.

On several occasions Tuesday, lawyers for DeBoer and Rowse, along with experts, cited supportive statements for gay parents from major professional groups such as the American Psychological Association, the American Sociological Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“The scholarly consensus is that children raised by same-sex couples are in no disadvantage,” said Michael J. Rosenfeld, a Stanford University sociologist and the author in 2007 of “The Age of Independence: Interracial Unions, Same-Sex Unions and the Changing American Family.” “The consensus (among sociologists) is a consensus opinion that this debate is settled.”

His view was supported as well by David M. Brodzinsky, a founder of and the research director at the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a New York–based nonprofit. Both insisted that poverty, educational level and relationship instabilities harm kids but parents’ sexual orientation does not.

“Children of gay and lesbian individuals show no discernible differences, and the other conclusion I reach is that the parenting qualities of gay and lesbian and heterosexual families show no discernible differences,” he said. Asked if mothers and fathers are important, Brodzinsky replied, “They’re important as parents. They’re not important as males and females.”

From left, April DeBoer, Jayne Rowse and DeBoer’s attorney Dana Nessel entering the federal courthouse in Detroit on Tuesday.
Daniel Mears/Detroit News/AP

Assistant Attorney General Joseph Potchen, cross-examining Brodzinsky, hammered the idea that none of the many studies on children of same-sex parents have been conducted using gay married couples. The first nation in the world to permit same-sex marriage was the Netherlands in 2000, and the first U.S. state was Massachusetts in 2004, Potchen noted.

After exhaustive questioning, Brodzinsky conceded, “It’s probably too soon to get accurate data on married same-sex couples.”

Potchen also worked to undermine Brodzinsky’s views by noting that gay groups had donated more than $200,000 to the Donaldson Institute. Brodzinsky said that amount was a small percentage of the organization’s budget.

At one point in the proceedings, Potchen quizzed Brodzinsky on whether he believes two sisters living together ought to be permitted to share custody of a child. 

Brodzinsky said it was “somewhat of a ridiculous question” and insisted that he has only said that children should be placed in families in which “two people are in a committed relationship of a marriagelike form.”

The onlookers

Supporters and opponents of same-sex marriage largely co-existed peaceably, even to the point that a pretrial picket line outside the courthouse featured an odd intermingling of discordant signs.

Yet George Cowles, 82, seethed after the first several hours of testimony, in which the plaintiffs’ attorney and experts insisted there’s no difference between the quality of same-sex and heterosexual parenting. Digging under his overcoat into the breast pocket of his brown button-down shirt to pull out his pocket-size King James Bible, he said, “There’s a big difference! Just read this and you’ll know it!”

“Why don’t they ask how many of them had mothers and fathers, and if they did, why would they want to go off man with man, woman with woman?” said Cowles, who along with his wife, Doris, 72, was with a group from the First Free Will Baptist Church in suburban Ypsilanti, Mich. The couple’s 30-year marriage is the second for both of them, with a blended family of nine children. “If they want to put themselves on the path to hell, that’s fine, but don’t take these children along with them.”

Rowse said that, for the most part, listening to the testimony was “interesting,” but she was rattled just before lunch when Brodzinsky mentioned that adoption counselors must tell same-sex partners that only one of them is permitted to be the adopting parent.

“When he talked about not being allowed to be our kids’ parents, I got a little upset by that. That got me a little,” she said.

DeBoer and Rowse sat listening intently but largely impassively during the seven hours of testimony. At a morning chat with reporters before the proceedings, they said they were nervous but committed to winning the case.

“We want to be recognized like everybody else,” DeBoer said. “Nothing says family like the marriage license that says we are legally a family, and that’s what we’re hoping for and we think we’re going to get.”

The two did not take their children along to court, but Beth Sherman took 12-year-old Emma Sherman-Hawver, one of the four children she is raising with her female partner in Ann Arbor, Mich. Emma, in a gray hoodie and bright teal Nike sneakers with Day-Glo yellow laces, sat alert through most of the day’s testimony.

That’s not to say she liked what she heard.

“Is our family different? Yes, but in a way, it’s not really different,” Emma said. “It’s different because you may not have a dad living at your house, but I don’t really notice.”

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