Star witness to defend ban on gay marriage takes the stand in Detroit

Sociologist Mark Regnerus testifies in Michigan gay marriage trial about his controversial research on same-sex parents

Demonstrators on Monday outside the federal courthouse in Detroit where Michigan’s ban on gay marriage is part of a trial on same-sex parenting.
David Coates/Detroit News/AP

DETROIT — The state of Michigan’s star witness opposing same-sex marriage acknowledged in court on Tuesday that children of gay couples could turn out just as well as any other kids.

University of Texas at Austin sociologist Mark Regnerus testified Monday that his research proved children of parents who are gay are probably “disadvantaged.”

The state, defending its ban on gay marriage in a federal lawsuit brought by a lesbian couple with three children, has staked much of its case on an argument that kids are harmed by having gay parents.

Yet after three hours of questions by ACLU attorney Leslie Cooper, Regnerus conceded that further research is necessary to reach any concrete conclusions.

“What we’ve learned is that it’s possible to grow up in same-sex households and the children will be fine,” said Regnerus, who acknowledged in court he is a religious conservative. “We won’t know if it’s probable until we test it over time.”

Regnerus’ 2012 New Family Structure Study, which he acknowledged in court was funded and organized by conservative think tanks, has been the focus of the Michigan trial. The study examined the lives of 248 adults who said their parents had had a same-sex relationship during their childhood and found, he said, that they fared worse academically and behaviorally than children raised in intact homes with heterosexual parents. 

Those findings have been cited by same-sex-marriage foes in several lawsuits around that nation, such as in Utah and Virginia, but have been ravaged by critics who say his conclusions were intentionally deceptive.

The Regnerus cross-examination was novel because it is the first time in the U.S. since 2010, when a federal judge struck down California’s similar voter-approved gay marriage ban, that an anti-gay-marriage expert was subjected to questioning under oath in open court. The many other pending cases on the legality of same-sex marriage have involved written arguments, not live testimony.

The Michigan trial is expected to wrap up Friday. It is unclear when or in what manner — in person or via documents — federal Judge Bernard Friedman will reveal his ruling. Same-sex marriage is legal in 17 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.

The cross-examination

Critics said Regnerus’ 248-person study included just two who had been raised from birth to adulthood by gay couples. When asked Monday how those two fared, Regnerus replied, “Pretty good.” 

On Tuesday, Cooper asked Regnerus how big a study would need to be to satisfy his curiosity about child welfare and how much it would cost. He said it would cost tens of millions of dollars over several years. Cooper asked whether he believed such funding could be approved, and Regnerus said it was unlikely.

“So,” Cooper asked, “if a nationally representative, large-scale longitudinal study is never done because it’s too expensive, is it your opinion that same-sex people should never be allowed to marry?”

Cold weather in Detroit didn’t deter people from demonstrating outside the court on Monday.
Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Rather than reply yes or no, Regnerus said, “It’s not just about the science around child outcomes. It’s about the common expectations of marriage … It’s a function of the longstanding criteria around marriage, especially the idea that marriage unites man and woman and the expectations around children.”

Part of the state’s and Regnerus’ argument has been that same-sex couples shouldn’t be permitted to marry if their children don’t fare as well as others. Cooper, a veteran gay rights attorney pivotal in cases that led to invalidating Florida’s ban on gay adoption, asked Regnerus if the state should also ban heterosexual marriage among the poor, the less educated and the remarried, given that those factors are statistically known to harm children.

Regnerus said no regarding the poor and less educated, but said he didn’t have an opinion about heterosexual remarriage. 

“You don’t have an opinion whether prior divorced people should be allowed to get married?” Cooper asked.

“It exists,” he said. “I don’t think much about that … I think it would be nice if (couples) can work it out.” 

Regnerus also insisted he hadn’t formed an opinion on whether it is better for a child in foster care to remain in a foster home or be adopted by a same-sex couple. 

Throughout the proceedings, Regnerus stuck to his insistence that biological, intact families are best and that anything else, including adoption, is “a concession.”  

A controversial study

In Regnerus’ study, published in the journal Social Science Research, he began by quizzing about 3,000 adults ages 18 to 39 about their parental configurations. Of his sample, 248 said at least one of their parents had a same-sex romantic relationship during their childhood. 

Cooper noted on Tuesday that the adults in the study were born before 1993, meaning that their gay parents couldn’t have been married because the first U.S. state to allow same-sex marriage was Massachusetts, beginning in 2004.

“Is it fair to say that (before 1993), planned same-sex families were quite uncommon?” she asked Regnerus. He agreed.

Her aim was to argue that the experiences of the people in his study are irrelevant to the question of how children fare with married gay parents because almost all were the results of a heterosexual union that was disbanded. Nowadays, she noted, thousands of children are being raised by same-sex couples who adopted or had children via artificial insemination.

“At the time the individuals were being raised, you agree (anti-gay social) stigma was more pronounced and social support for lesbian and gay parents was much more modest than it is today?” she asked.

“One would presume so,” Regnerus said.

Several mainstream professional groups, including the American Psychological Association and the American Sociological Association, have come out in support of same-sex parents. These groups cite dozens of smaller studies that show no difference between children of intact same-sex and heterosexual families.

“It is intellectually frustrating to see social science close off the debate on this by claiming it’s settled when we haven’t even collected the ideal kind of data yet,” Regnerus said in court. “Let’s get out there and get some more before we make wide-scale changes in an institution that has served us since time immemorial.”

Regnerus found himself under attack from outside the courtroom too. Christine Williams, head of the sociology department at UT-Austin, issued a statement late Monday distancing the department from his findings.

Regnerus’ views “do not reflect the views of the sociology department of the University of Texas at Austin. Nor do they reflect the views of the American Sociological Association, which takes the position that the conclusions he draws from his study of gay parenting are fundamentally flawed on conceptual and methodological grounds and that findings from Dr. Regnerus’ work have been cited inappropriately in efforts to diminish the civil rights and legitimacy of LBGTQ partners and their families,” Williams wrote. “We encourage society as a whole to evaluate his claims.” 

Asked about the statement in court, Regnerus said that Williams’ action was “regrettable” and that several colleagues told him they were dismayed by it.

Outcry and ire

Last week Friedman heard from plaintiffs’ experts who said Regnerus’ study was flawed in part because almost all the 248 subjects were the products of divorce and other home-life disruptions known to harm child welfare. His results, they argued, don’t reflect the welfare of children born or adopted into households led by stable gay couples.

When Regnerus took the stand Monday, he spent much of his time answering criticisms of his work. Outcry over the quality of his study prompted Social Science Research to conduct an unusual postpublication audit of his work. That audit resulted in a report by one of the journal’s editors, sociologist Darren Sherkat of Southern Illinois University, asserting Regnerus’ piece shouldn’t have been published.

Regnerus said he was taken aback by the intensity of the ire raised by his study’s findings. 

“It was severe and swift, and it surprised me,” he said in court. “If you don’t like the study, go field your own. Until we have more data, it’s rational and prudent for states to be careful and privilege what we already know to be true about children in same-sex households and tread carefully of what we don’t know to be true.”

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