Mark Regnerus Anti-Marriage Equality Study Exposed As BS–Again

As the Supreme Court prepares to issue a decision on whether same-sex marriage should be legal, the religious right is rolling out one of its favorite arguments against marriage equality–a 2012 study by University of Texas sociology professor Mark Regnerus that seemingly found that kids who are raised by same-sex couples don’t turn out nearly as well as kids raised by straight couples. This study has been discredited several times over; indeed, an internal review by the journal that published the study found that it was fatally flawed. Nonetheless, Regnerus has become one of the darlings of the religious right, and has frequently been called as an expert witness by religious right groups hoping to derail marriage equality. They might not be so willing to call him as a witness if they knew about an internal review of Regnerus’ now-infamous “New Family Structures Study” by UT’s College of Liberal Arts The verdict? The study’s methodology was so flawed that it shouldn’t be used as a basis for making policy on same-sex marriage.

Mark Regnerus (from his Facebook page)
Mark Regnerus (from his Facebook page)

The Daily Texan, UT’s student newspaper, reported that in the summer of 2014, the sociology department’s chairwoman at the time, Christine Williams, had severe misgivings about the methodology and conclusions of the NFSS. Although Regnerus got an excellent overall rating at his six-year post-tenure performance review, the concerns were serious enough to trigger a college-level review. Senior associate dean for student affairs Marc Musick, himself a sociologist, wrote a report that concluded the NFSS study was “fundamentally flawed” due to numerous methodological problems. Specifically, there was no link between the parents’ sexuality and whether kids who are raised by same-sex parents fare worse than their counterparts who are raised by straight parents. This largely echoed the findings of an internal review by Social Science Research, the journal that published the study. Among other things, the study defined any woman who became a lesbian at any point after having a child as a “lesbian mother.” The man who conducted the audit, Darren Sherkat of Southern Illinois, bluntly described the NFSS as “bullshit,” and claimed that its definition of “lesbian mother” and “gay father” should have been enough by itself to disqualify it from publication.

More seriously, Musick suggested that Regnerus may have violated a number of ethical standards set by the American Sociological Association. Not only was his courtroom testimony questionable at best, but it looked like he twiddled his thumbs while conservative groups used his study to argue against marriage equality even though Regnerus himself stipulated that the study didn’t deal with marriage equality. Indeed, Musick suggested that by not disclosing that the supposed connection between same-sex relationships and unstable families was by design, Regnerus may have violated UT’s policy on scientific misconduct. However, the dean of the College of Liberal Arts, Randy Diehl, didn’t feel a post-tenure review committee was the place to discuss ethical concerns, and asked two vice presidents of research for their view. They concluded there was no misconduct.

This January, the post-tenure review committee met again to discuss the methodological concerns. According to a letter Diehl wrote to Williams’ successor as sociology chair, Rob Crosnoe, the committee found that since the study was designed to ensure that there was a link between same-sex relationships and family stability, “it is not possible to conclude that the different life outcomes between the two groups were caused by the parental relationship variable.” For this reason, Diehl concluded that “no policy implications about same-sex parenting should be drawn from the study.” In other words–this study should not be relied upon by policymakers. Despite this, he did not downgrade Regnerus’ rating of “Exceeds Expectations,” and declared the matter closed.

While The Daily Texan applauded what amounted to a formal discrediting of the NFSS, it felt that Diehl acted “shamefully” in not addressing Regnerus’ apparent ethics violations. Diehl’s desire to move on, The Daily Texan argued, should have been trumped several times over by Regnerus’ “blinding scientific errors and ethical lapses.” It’s hard not to agree. Regnerus himself wrote in the original paper that his study doesn’t deal with marriage equality, and conceded in an interview with Focus on the Family that his study really didn’t say anything at all about gay parenting.

We know the religious right will dismiss this study as just another example of those pointy-headed libruls in Austin eroding the foundations of our society. But their own says that his study doesn’t say anything about how kids turn out when raised by LGBT parents and yet still cites his study in court. I think I’d rather take the word of those pointy-headed libruls in Austin.

Darrell is a 30-something graduate of the University of North Carolina who considers himself a journalist of the old school. An attempt to turn him into a member of the religious right in college only succeeded in turning him into the religious right's worst nightmare--a charismatic Christian who is an unapologetic liberal. His desire to stand up for those who have been scared into silence only increased when he survived an abusive three-year marriage. You may know him on Daily Kos as Christian Dem in NC. Follow him on Twitter @DarrellLucus or connect with him on Facebook. Click here to buy Darrell a Mello Yello.