Will Obviously Biased Study Against Gay Parents Persuade Supreme Court?
A widely discredited parenting study saying kids are worse off if they have gay parents was funded by prominent religious conservative groups with the express intention of using these disputed findings in gay marriage cases before the Supreme Court, new evidence suggests.
According to documents secured by the Huffington Post and The American Independent via a freedom of information request, including internal emails and letters, financial backers of the highly controversial New Family Structures Study were from the very beginning crafting the study to be a weapon in their fight against gay marriage.
Biased Backers of Study Make for Biased Results
The New Family Structures Study, which had at its helm self-described Christian sociologist Mark Regnerus of the University of Texas, was supposed to be an unbiased look at same-sex parenting compared to opposite-sex parenting. However, claims that the study’s all conservative backers (chiefly the religious conservative Witherspoon Institute) had not biased the results always seemed suspect.
Now, the obtained internal communications between Luis Tellez, president of the Witherspoon Institute, and Mark Rengerus regarding Regnerus coming aboard for the study cast further doubt on that claim:
“Naturally we would like to move along as expeditiously as possible but experience suggests we ought not to get hung up with deadlines, do what is right and best, move on it, don’t dilly dolly, etc.,” Tellez wrote in a Sept. 22, 2010 email. “It would be great to have this before major decisions of the Supreme Court but that is secondary to the need to do this and do it well. I would like you to take ownership and think of how would you want it done, rather than someone like me dictating parameters but of course, here to help.”
Taken on its own this seems fairly innocuous, but Tellez then wrote to another religious conservative organization for funds, the Bradley Foundation and its Vice President for Programs Dan Schmidt, where he appears not only to anticipate the study’s findings but also outlines an intent to use the study to fight same-sex marriage:
“As you know, the future of the institution of marriage at this moment is very uncertain,” Tellez wrote in the letter, dated April 5, 2011. “It is essential that the necessary data be gathered to settle the question in the forum of public debate about what kinds of family arrangement are best for society. That is what the NFSS is designed to do. Our first goal is to seek the truth, whatever that may turn out to be. Nevertheless, we are confident that the traditional understanding of marriage will be vindicated by this study as long as it is done honestly and well.”
Tellez is then quoted as saying the supposed question surrounding same-sex parenting “must now be answered — in a scientifically serious way — by those who are in favor of traditional marriage.”
In a separate letter, he specifically mentions that other incidentally pro-gay studies have been used by lawmakers and the courts to advance marriage equality and, to paraphrase, that there is need for the Witherspoon-backed research so as to offer the traditional marriage view.
Conservative Backers Had a Hand in Framing Research
A second issue raised by these documents is that Mark Regnerus has repeatedly claimed that though the Witherspoon Institute had been the driving force behind the study, the group had no role in data gathering or analysis. This now appears to be very obviously false.
Obtained documents show that a consultant, University of Virginia associate sociology professor W. Bradford Wilcox, was hired by the University of Texas to aid Regnerus’ team. At the time, Wilcox was also the director of Witherspoon’s Program on Family, Marriage, and Democracy, the very branch of Witherspoon which first spawned the study (and in fact recruited Rengerus).
Mark Regnerus has since denied that Wilcox was in any way a “Witherspoon agent,” yet the Huffington Post quotes Regnerus asking Wilcox a number of questions including what the “optimal timelines” of the study should be, thus suggesting that Wilcox was very much part of the process and was pushing to have the study released as quickly as possible. The Huffington Post also goes on to say that the documents they have uncovered show Wilcox was able to make decisions and represent the Witherspoon Institute even before he was officially contracted.
Journal Review Process was Unusually Quick
The last main issue uncovered by the reading of these documents is that Wilcox seems to have been key in suggesting that Regnerus submit the study to Social Science Research, the journal which in due course did publish the study. Wilcox sits on the editorial advisory board for that journal. This appears especially damning given existing concerns about the speed with which the study was pushed through the review process.
The study was submitted in February 2012 of last year. This was before Rengnerus had even finished collecting data. The study was accepted for publication just six weeks later. Much has already been written about the heavily biased review process the paper went through.
In any case, it is general practice for most studies to wait up to a year before they are published, but the Huffington Post has spoken to social demographer Michael Rosenfeld who says he was asked to write a commentary of the paper by the journal with a turnaround time of just two weeks. When he then asked to see the data Regernus’ team had gathered, they refused him access.
Social Science Research editor James Wright denies that there was anything unusual about the peer review process or the short turnaround time, saying that it was in fact his wish to publish the study alongside another article on existing gay marriage studies, but this has done little to dissuade from criticism that a more thorough review process would have revealed the obvious flaws in methodology that should have prevented the paper ever being considered a serious piece of research.
Despite Being Discredited, Study Used in Several Marriage Equality Cases
Though the study has been widely discredited by many in the field, and even Mark Regnerus himself has said the study cannot be used to show same-sex parent families are incapable of providing just as good an upbringing for children as their heterosexual counterparts, the study has still been used as a main piece of research to back up anti-gay marriage arguments made in court.
For instance, the legal team acting on behalf of House Republicans has cited the New Family Structures Study in Windsor v. United States, a case challenging the federal Defense of Marriage Act, and in Hollingsworth v. Perry, the case surrounding Proposition 8. Moreover, the study has been cited by a number of Religious Right groups who have filed their own friend of the court briefs in these cases, and was even used in August of 2012 as part of the basis by which a Hawaii judge denied a challenge to the state’s same-sex marriage ban.
The Supreme Court is expected to take up Hollingsworth v. Perry and Windsor v. United States in the next few weeks.
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