Regnerus Ducks Responsibility for Study’s Misuse

Christianity Today has published an email interview with Mark Regnerus, the sociologist whose “New Family Structures Study” has been hyped by groups fighting marriage equality. (The study’s glaring problems have been detailed elsewhere; a demographer asked to audit the study called it “bullshit.”) 

In the interview, Regnerus says “The study itself was neither intended to undermine nor to affirm any legal rights about same-sex marriage.” That’s hard to take seriously given the anti-marriage positions of the study’s right-wing funders, the Witherspoon Institute and the Bradley Foundation. And it would be news to right-wing groups like the National Organization for Marriage and Family Research Council, who are misrepresenting its findings and trumpeting them as evidence that stable, committed, same-sex couples should not be allowed to marry or adopt children.

Regnerus seems untroubled that his research has been and is being touted as providing evidence that gay families are harmful for children growing up in them—something the study unequivocally does NOT provide. In fact, Christianity Today gave him a perfect opening to tell people to stop misrepresenting his findings, and he ducked it:

What would you say to religious and political groups that promote traditional marriage and want to use the NFSS results to “prove” that parenting by same-sex couples is damaging to children?

I am neither a theologian nor politically oriented, so I wouldn’t presume to tell anyone else how to do their jobs. While social science cannot “prove” things, it can describe social reality. What the NFSS does describe is that the young-adult children of men and women who have had same-sex relationships appear more likely to have experienced problems, and in some cases continue to struggle, than those whose biological parents were and are still married. Why exactly this is the case is an important question that should continue to be explored and debated.

Even the name of the study—New Family Structures Study—is misleading given that the “new family structure” most affected by the study is the one the study doesn’t evaluate, as even a website set up by the Witherspoon Institute to tout the Regnerus study acknowledges: “…although it would have been helpful to compare the children of [intact biological families] to the children of committed and intact gay or lesbian couples, this was attempted, but was not feasible” because of difficulty in finding a sample size.  

Regnerus tells Christianity Today that, in hindsight, he wishes he had been “even more vigilant than I was in making sure readers always understood” what the study was actually about: “adult children of parents who have, or have had, same-sex relationships.” For gay parents and the children they are trying to raise, that is a shamefully tepid response to the way the Regnerus study has already been misused—and probably will be for years—to argue that their families are harmful and do not deserve legal protection.

Peter Montgomery, an associate editor for Religion Dispatches, is a Senior Fellow at People For the American Way Foundation where he was on staff for 15 years. Before that he was associate director of grassroots lobbying for Common Cause and wrote for Common Cause Magazine, an award-winning journal featuring investigative reporting about the federal government.