Conservative group tries to sway SCOTUS on gay marriage with flawed study

New documents reveal the Witherspoon Institute recruited a university professor to try to manipulate public policy

Published March 11, 2013 10:10PM (EDT)

This article originally appeared on The American Independent.

The American Independent The conservative funders who bankrolled a flawed and widely cited academic study that’s critical of gay marriage choreographed its release in time to influence “major decisions of the Supreme Court,” documents show.

The documents, recently obtained through public-records requests by The American Independent, show that the Witherspoon Institute recruited a professor from a major university to carry out a study that was designed to manipulate public policy. In communicating with donors about the research project, Witherspoon’s president clearly expected results unfavorable to the gay-marriage movement.

The think tank’s efforts paid off. The New Family Structures Study came out just in time for opponents of gay marriage to cite it in multiple federal cases involving marriage equality – including two cases soon to be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

James Wright, editor of Social Science Research, which published the study’s findings last summer, said he was not aware of the funders’ intentions to use his academic journal to sway the Supreme Court.

“So far as the Supreme Court is concerned, I consider marriage and adoption rights for GLBT people to be a matter of civil rights, i.e., a legal question, not something to be ‘resolved’ by empirical research, and I resent having social science data and research drawn into such debates,” Wright, a University of Central Florida sociology professor, said in an email.

In a study slammed for its methodology, funding, and academic integrity, University of Texas associate sociology professor Mark Regnerus found that children who grew up in households where one parent had a same-sex relationship (regardless of whether the children lived with that parent or that parent’s supposed same-sex partner) were more likely to experience negative social, psychological, and economic outcomes than children raised by a married heterosexual couple.

Records show that an academic consultant hired by UT to conduct data analysis for the project was a longtime fellow of the Witherspoon Institute, which shelled out about $700,000 for the research. Documentation about University of Virginia associate sociology professor W. Bradford Wilcox’s dual roles contradict Regnerus’ assertions that the think tank wasn’t involved with how the study was designed or carried out.

Religious right groups such as the Witherspoon Institute have for years been challenging the legality of gay marriage on all fronts and trying to amass data that that can be used to sway the public, lawmakers, and the courts to their side of the debate. Groups seeking to block gay marriage have been eager to use Regnerus’ study – and even further twist his findings – as evidence that gay parents are inferior to straight parents.

So far, the New Family Structures Study has been cited in United States v. Windsor, a challenge to the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, and Hollingsworth v. Perry, which seeks to overturn California’s gay-marriage ban, Proposition 8.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops recently filed a “friend of the court” brief in Perry, arguing that, “A mother and father each bring something unique and irreplaceable to child-rearing that the other cannot.” The brief said that Regnerus’ study found “that children raised by married biological parents fared better in a range of significant outcomes than children raised in same-sex households.”

But the term “same-sex households” is misleading. The study effectively compared families with two always-married straight parents to some families who only had one parent but were characterized as households headed by gay fathers or lesbian mothers.

In a brief submitted last year in Windsor by the Republican-controlled Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group (BLAG) of the U.S. House of Representatives – which is helping to defend DOMA – the group referenced the study when arguing that the lesbian plaintiff in that case “does not, because she cannot, deny the existence of our bedrock cultural assumption that, when possible, children should be raised by their own biological mother and father.”

The study also has been cited in gay-marriage cases beyond those taken up by the Supreme Court. In August, a federal judge cited the New Family Structures Study in upholding Hawaii’s ban on gay marriage.

Plaintiffs and advocates involved with some of the cases in which the study has been cited as evidence to support bans on gay marriage are pointing out its many flaws.

Regnerus’ own professional organization, the American Sociological Association, recently filed an amicus brief in Hollingsworth v. Perry, arguing that his study “provides no support for the conclusions that same-sex parents are inferior parents or that the children of same-sex parents experience worse outcomes.”

Jennifer C. Pizer, senior counsel and director of the Law and Policy Project at the LGBT-rights legal advocacy group Lambda Legal, said she is not surprised to learn that the study’s funders had an agenda when financing this research. But what is more important, she said, is that the study is being used to support conclusions it did not find.

“Given all that’s been written about the study, it seems disappointing but not surprising to see this confirmed,” Pizer said in an interview. “But to me, the more important thing is not that people with a conservative world-view would want to fund research to prove what they already believe is true and that they want to do it quickly so that it could be relevant to courts. Really, the most important point remains that the data did not support the points for which it’s been cited.”

But for Pizer, who has for many years represented gay men and lesbians in discrimination cases, including recent cases surrounding marriage equality, a study about gay parenting is irrelevant to the gay-marriage debate.

“Even if it were true – which it isn’t – that straight people make better parents than gay people,” Pizer said, “it would not make any sense to say, therefore, gay people can’t get married. Because gay people do have children, so whose children can possibly be helped by denying some parents the right to marry?”

‘Time is of the essence’

In the early stages of the New Family Structures Study – before data was collected and long before any results were known – the Witherspoon Institute’s president, Luis Tellez, made it clear to Regnerus that expediency was paramount.

“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.”

Tellez told The American Independent that he was referring to federal lawsuits about same-sex marriage, two of which the Supreme Court has decided to hear this month.

Based in Princeton, N.J., Witherspoon is an influential conservative think tank that espouses the viewpoint that marriage is “a personal union, intended for the whole of life, of husband and wife.” The group has had the ear of conservative politicians including President George W. Bush. It was co-founded by Catholic intellectuals Tellez and Robert George, a Princeton University professor who also co-founded the National Organization for Marriage, which heavily campaigned to pass Proposition 8 in 2008 and has been involved in fighting against gay marriage ever since. George also sits on the board of the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, which gave Regnerus $90,000 for his study.

letter Tellez wrote to the Bradley Foundation’s Vice President for Programs Dan Schmidt shows that Teller not only anticipated what the study would find, but also intended to use it to sway policy.

“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.”

As Tellez noted in the letter, the Bradley Foundation had already contributed to the planning stage of the New Family Structures Study through a 2010 grant given to Witherspoon for a project on marriage and sexual ethics. In his letter, Tellez asked the foundation for $200,000 more to go toward the New Family Structures research. In his request he noted the urgency of getting the study published – before the data had even been collected.

“The [University of Texas at Austin’s Population Research] Center has requested that The Witherspoon Institute work with it in raising the necessary funds, and given the importance of the project, the Institute has committed to doing so, with Dr. Mark Regnerus’ assistance,” Tellez wrote, “We are quite sure that if we do not intervene, the project will not be funded in a timely fashion. And this is a project where time is of the essence.”

Tellez went on to explain that the crux of the New Family Structures Study – whether kids raised by gay parents fare as well as those raised by straight parents – “is the question that must now be answered – in a scientifically serious way – by those who are in favor of traditional marriage.”

More from the letter:

In courts, in legislatures, and in the media, the proponents of same-sex marriage continually buttress their position by pointing to a handful of previous studies on this question. Those small studies purport to show that children from same-sex families fare no differently than those raised by married mothers and fathers.

The problem is that those studies are deeply flawed. Not only that, but many previous studies have led to the conclusion that children thrive best when they are raised by a married mother and father.

Until someone sponsors proper research comparing such families to those headed by gay and lesbian couples, these flawed studies will continue to lend credibility to the same-sex-marriage movement, simply because there are still no other studies that address this question.

The Bradley Foundation ultimately gave $90,000 to Regnerus’ research, adding to Witherspoon’s $695,000 grant.

Read the letter in full:

Witherspoon Letter to Bradley Foundation by Sofia Resnick

Tellez now claims he had no expectation about what the New Family Structures Study would reveal.

“I believe all research should be of the highest quality and never should politics be allowed to bias the research,” he recently told The American Independent in an email. “When I wrote those comments I did not know what the outcome of the research would be, regardless of what that outcome would turned [sic] out to be. I expected that given the magnitude and importance of the survey that been completed by the NFSS, it would be good that those making decisions, such as SCOTUS Justices should be availed of that information, whatever the results turned out to be if it could be done without jeopardizing the quality of the research.”

Many critics of the New Family Structures Study have raised questions about the speed with which Regnerus’ paper’ was published in Social Science Research.

The study was submitted for publication in early February 2012, before Regnerus’ team had finished collecting all of the data. The paper was accepted for publication about six weeks later, in mid-March. By contrast, some of the other articles published in the same issue of Social Science Research took a year between submission and acceptance.

Michael Rosenfeld, a social demographer who teaches at Stanford University, said the journal had asked him to write a commentary of the paper but gave him a two-week deadline – a time frame Rosenfeld said is unusually short in the academic world. Rosenfeld told The American Independent that he still doesn’t know why Regnerus’ paper was seemingly rushed.

“One of the things about academic publishing is that it’s not in a hurry,” Rosenfeld said. “It’s more important to get it right than to rush it into print. So, I was sort of perplexed as to what the hurry was about.”

Rosenfeld said he agreed to review the paper on the condition that he could see the data. But Regnerus’ team refused.

“I’m a data-analysis person,” Rosenfeld said. “So, for me I wasn’t going to have anything to say about Regnerus’ paper until I could actually see the data and figure out for myself whether what he had done was reasonable or not. And I didn’t want to have a debate with him about the data when he could see the data and I couldn’t. That didn’t seem like it was going to go very far.”

Wright, in response, said Regnerus’ study got no special attention in the review process. In an editorial published in the November 2012 issue of Social Science Research, he said the quick turnaround was due in part to peer reviewers’ speed and in part due to his desire to publish Regnerus’ paper in the same issue as a review of previous gay-marriage studies that had been submitted by Louisiana State University professor Loren Marks in October 2011 (Marks concluded those studies are all mostly flawed).

‘This is not some right-wing conspiracy’

In 2010, Regnerus tried to recruit several scholars who study LGBT families to work as consultants on his study. As is documented in proposals and planning materials, one of the goals of the New Family Structures Study was to employ a range of scholars that spanned the political spectrum.

Rosenfeld was among the more liberal scholars Regnerus contacted. In an email dated Oct. 25, 2010, Regnerus assured Rosenfeld, “This is not some right-wing conspiracy (I myself am a moderate and largely apolitical); while the initial funding source is conservative, they’re actually pursuing (and already getting) additional financial support from across the spectrum. They want to see the science here move forward based on good sampling strategies, large samples, etc.”

Rosenfeld declined the offer, telling Regnerus, “After thinking about your project, and especially thinking about the unusual way the project is funded, I have decided to pass for now.”

In late 2010, Clark University psychology professor and LGBT parenting scholar Abbie Goldberg contacted Regnerus after hearing about his study plans from other researchers. In her initial email, she asked him why he was undertaking this research and said she was skeptical of the Witherspoon Institute’s involvement.

In an email dated Dec. 2, 2010, Regnerus revealed to Goldberg that the Witherspoon Institute had already anticipated what the results would be – that previous studies showing favorable outcomes for children raised by same-sex parents were wrong. Still, he assured Goldberg that he was committed to finding the truth. He also told her that Witherspoon was trying to raise money from LGBT-friendly organizations to help fund the study.

“The funder, being conservative, thinks the ‘no differences’ story is a function of small Ns [sample sizes] and snowball samples [a non-probability sampling technique],” Regnerus wrote in the email. “They might be right; I don’t know, It IS however, an empirical question. If done right, we could get some clarity; that would be good for everyone. Witherspoon is committed to getting the study funded; they are actively working to secure investment in this study from pro-GLBTQ persons and orgs with whom they have contact (i.e., not all conservatives are against GLBTQ concerns). I, however, am not part of that process. On the other hand, Witherspoon is not in charge of this study and how it unfolds. I am.”

In that email, Regnerus candidly explained to Goldberg why he believed Witherspoon recruited him to head up the New Family Structures Study – and why he was willing.

“I’m an odd pick to run this thing, but I understand why and I’m also not at major risk of becoming well-known in this domain; that is, I don’t intend to really get into the area after the initial report is issued,” he wrote. “That could change, but this is not my primary subject of interest. Thus my goofs and gaffes in pulling together a team, I suppose. I didn’t know anybody at the Witherspoon Institute before several months ago. Basically, [sic] was a friend of a friend who introduced me. They liked my nose for hard data in a politicized arena – heterosexual behavior – and hoped I could do the same in this one. I’m between books and this hit at the right time, so fine, I can manage such a project, provided I locate good advisors.”

Regnerus invited Goldberg to be a paid consultant for the project, but she declined his offer.

“My concerns were significant enough that I did not feel that my advice would be appropriately used,” she told The American Independent in an email. “I gave him feedback that he ultimately did not use, so it seems like it was a good decision.”

Witherspoon’s role

The Witherspoon Institute has long been skeptical about the current, limited research on same-sex parenting. In 2008, the organization published a document titled “Marriage and the Public Good: Ten Principles,” which called for the need for more social scientific research on gay marriage’s impact on child-rearing.

The “Ten Principles” paper predicted that “children reared by same-sex parents will experience greater difficulties with their identity, sexuality, attachments to kin, and marital prospects as adults, among other things.” But at the time there was no legitimate scientific research showing that gay parents are inferior to straight parents.

“[U]ntil more research is available, the jury is still out,” the paper reads.

The absence of scientific backing in that report seemed inconsequential to President George W. Bush after he was presented Wilcox’s research by Princeton’s Robert George during a meeting in 2006. According to an old Witherspoon press release, “President Bush remarked on the importance of having distinguished scholars widely respected in their disciplines speaking out strongly in defense of marriage.”

Witherspoon’s predictions – that children raised by a parent who had a same-sex relationship experienced greater social, psychological, and economic difficulties than those raised by intact heterosexual parents – are reflected in the study it financed.

Still, when Regnerus first published his New Family Structures Study in the July 2012 issue of Social Science Research, he made a point of saying that his conservative funders had not played a role in designing the research or analyzing the data.

“The NFSS was supported in part by grants from the Witherspoon Institute and the Bradley Foundation,” he wrote. “While both of these are commonly known for their support of conservative causes — just as other private foundations are known for supporting more liberal causes — 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.”

He reiterated this statement in his follow-up analysis of the study, again writing that “[n]o funding agency representatives were consulted about research design, survey contents, analysis, or conclusions.”

Regnerus’ assertions come into question in light of revelations last year that Wilcox had been hired on contract by UT to assist Regnerus with the data analysis of the study. During part of that time, Wilcox was also the director of Witherspoon’s Program on Family, Marriage, and Democracy, out of which the study was conceptualized and Regnerus was recruited. Wilcox had been a fellow with Witherspoon from 2004 to 2011, and he has said that he worked as a paid consultant on the study from October 2010 to April 2012.

Wilcox, Regnerus, and Tellez all downplayed Wilcox’s position at the Witherspoon Institute and asserted that his advice to Regnerus was never given on behalf of the think tank. “[Wilcox] was never involved in any decision making at the Witherspoon Institute in matters related to the New Family Structure Study,” Tellez told The American Independent last October. Regnerus also said that Wilcox was never a “Witherspoon agent.”

But email exchanges show that Wilcox’s authoritative role was clear even before he became an official paid consultant on the study. There are also examples of Wilcox making decisions on behalf of Witherspoon and of Tellez insisting Wilcox be present at certain meetings alongside Regnerus.

It’s evident from email exchanges that Regnerus was aware of his funders’ concerns about timing. In one email, dated Sept. 21, 2010, he told Wilcox he wanted input about desired outcomes and deadlines of the research.

I would like, at some point, to get more feedback … about the “boundaries” around this project, not just costs but also their optimal timelines (for the coalition meeting, the data collection, etc.), and their hopes for what emerges from this project, including the early report we discussed in D.C. Feel free to forward this to them.

A subsequent, undated email from Wilcox suggested that Regnerus’ findings be pitched to Social Science Research, where Wilcox sits on the editorial advisory board. The journal eventually published the paper in July 2012.

New Family Structures Study docs Round 4 (redacted) by Sofia Resnick

New Family Structures Study docs Round 5 (redacted) by Sofia Resnick

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