Evidence Should Trump Ideology When Deciding Same-Sex Parenting Cases

Children in a loving home.

Photo by CREATISTA/Shutterstock.com

Last Friday, a Utah judge reversed an order he had issued just three days earlier that would have removed a young girl from her home because her foster parents are lesbians. Under fierce pressure that even included grumbling by the state’s Republican governor, Judge Scott Johansen issued a temporary reversal after first ruling that it was “not in the best interest of children to be raised by same-sex couples.” The shift is good news for the girl and her foster parents, April Hoagland and Beckie Peirce; for child welfare advocates; and for anyone concerned with fairness, equality, or evidence-based policy.

Yet the matter is far from over. Johansen set a December date for the girl’s fate to be argued at a hearing. And the judge’s revised order left intact a critical foundation of his initial reasoning: what the judge still calls “a concern that research has shown that children are more emotionally and mentally stable when raised by a mother and father in the same home.”

Hoagland and Peirce told a news station they believe the judge relied on his religious beliefs to make his decision, something that would be plainly unconstitutional. Does the judge have any sound reason to give straight couples preference over same-sex ones?

Asked in court to cite any of the “myriad” studies he reportedly referenced in ruling against the same-sex couple, Johansen declined. And for good reason: There are none. A research team I direct, based at Columbia Law School, conducted one of the most exhaustive analyses of peer-reviewed studies on same-sex parenting published over the last 30 years. Our initiative, the What We Know Project, started with the question, “What does the scholarly research say about the wellbeing of children with gay or lesbian parents?” Our results, which are constantly updated as new research emerges, are posted at our site, with links to the studies or their abstracts.

What did we find? Currently, there are 77 scholarly articles that address this question. Of those, 73—the vast majority—found that children raised by same-sex couples fare just as well as their peers. Could the four outliers be the “myriad” studies Johansen is referencing? Not if he’s done an ounce of homework and is being remotely honest about what the research says. For starters, basing a ruling that breaks a family apart on four studies that are contradicted by 73 others is questionable on its face. But equally important, these four studies do not actually prove what their authors claim they do, and anyone who looks at them closely can see that.

Reviewing the studies clarifies that they all suffer from the same fundamental flaw: While the authors tout the importance of large, random samples and imply that that’s what they’re using, they in fact rely on samples that are anything but. Here’s how this works: They start with very large samples that come from a reliable dataset like the census. In some cases the original sample is as large as several million people. Out of this much ballyhooed sample size, researchers struggle to identify families in which a stable, same-sex couple raised children from infancy—the relevant standard, since what’s usually being debated, as in the Utah case, is whether such a couple ought to be allowed to parent. So researchers create their own definitions for what constitutes an “LGB” family, and they are uniformly very loose. In some cases they just ask children if a parent ever had a same-sex relationship and throw the “yes” kids into a category called “LGB families”—even though they are a world apart from a situation in which children are raised by a stable, same-sex couple. This is not to say one type of family is superior to another, just that we must compare apples to apples to yield any useful conclusions about same-sex parenting. (Many of the gay-supportive studies also use small samples, but their authors don’t suggest otherwise, and—most important—they are actually studying children raised by same-sex parents.)

When researcher Mark Regnerus created these kinds of very loose categories for gay and lesbian families in a notorious 2012 study claiming kids with gay parents fared worse than their peers, those who looked into his research found that the sample size of kids who were actually raised by a same-sex couple from birth was not in the thousands or even hundreds, but two. Just two families. Similarly, Douglas Allen, who published a 2013 study claiming that children in “gay and lesbian families” were less likely to complete high school than their peers, acknowledged he had no idea how many children in his sample were actually raised by same-sex parents. It could have been hundreds, or it could have been zero.

In short, researchers with an anti-gay agenda knowingly lump children of gay parents in with children of family break-up, a group known to face added disadvantages due not to their parents’ sexuality but to the instability of their past. Since the vast majority of gay parents became parents through a prior heterosexual relationship, the majority of children with a gay parent are children of family break-up. That’s a wholly different cohort from children raised from birth by a stable same-sex couple. Failing to control for this glaring fact makes the conclusions drawn about parental sexual orientation entirely worthless. It would be like deriving gay mortality rates by sampling a hospital’s AIDS ward, or trying to measure the mental health of Muslims by sampling refugees who have suffered wrenching dislocations.

The work of Regnerus and Allen had numerous other shortcomings that make their conclusions wholly useless. (See here, here and here.) Indeed, judges across the country have rejected their claims for a wide variety of reasons, including basic violations of academic standards such as blurred lines between funders and researchers, rushed or compromised peer review, ideological rigidity, and misleading interpretations of data. For such reasons, when Regnerus, Allen, and a handful of other conservative scholars testified in defense of same-sex marriage bans in a 2014 trial, a federal judge in Michigan found their testimony “entirely unbelievable and not worthy of serious consideration.”

Why would a handful of researchers continue to insist that same-sex couples are inferior options for children in need of loving homes, when they know—or ought to know—that the facts don’t support that conclusion?

As Hoagland and Peirce suspected, ideology seems to be playing an outsize role here. These scholars are carrying out the work of the virulently anti-gay National Organization for Marriage’s “Expert Witness Project,” a strategic plan, exposed through court documents, to “nurture a worldwide community of highly credentialed intellectuals and professional scholars” and others to sway public officials against LGBTQ equality. As part of the effort, the Heritage Foundation hosted a meeting of Catholic intellectuals and other social conservatives to discuss ways to fund and generate studies that, while having the appearance of mild-mannered, good-faith scholarship, misleadingly suggested that gay marriage and parents harm kids.

It’s all part of a concerted effort to give conservative-leaning judges tools to do just what Johansen did in Utah last week (and what Justice Antonin Scalia tried to do at the Supreme Court): to act as though there is a serious scholarly debate over the well-being of children in LGBT families, the better to let courts thwart equality with vague but official-sounding references to “concerns” over child welfare.

Under cross-examination in the Michigan trial, Regnerus, who has said outlandish things about gay people, acknowledged that his research was informed by his religious faith, and Allen conceded that he believed unrepentant gays were bound for hell. Of course, people are entitled to their religious beliefs. But no one is entitled to substitute their own personal faith for a sound—and constitutional—judgment about the best interests of a child.

We must hope that Johansen is aware of the effort by professional anti-gay strategists to dupe judges into accepting their bogus research as legitimate. Of course, if the judge cannot produce evidence—genuine evidence—for his declaration that children are better off with heterosexual parents, there is little else to conclude than that he, too, is basing his decisions on his faith or personal animus against gay people, both of which are unconstitutional. More to the point, 30 years of research shows that the judge is acting contrary to the best interests of the child whose life has been entrusted to his hands. That is a solemn responsibility to be violating—for a religious man or anyone else.