Newly-obtained documents show that the conservative policy organizations who funded a widely discredited study about the supposed harms of same-sex parenting bankrolled the research expecting to find results that would be harmful to the marriage equality movement, in time to influence “major decisions of the Supreme Court.”
The documents, first reported on the Huffington Post by the American Independent‘s Sofia Resnick, contradict the claim repeatedly made by Mark Regnerus, author of the New Family Structures Study (NFSS), that his funders were not involved in designing the research, analyzing the data, or influencing the study’s conclusions. In Regnerus’ original report, he wrote:
The NFSS was supported in part by grants from the Witherspoon Institute and the Bradley Foundation. 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.
In a follow-up analysis Regnerus published in November to answer the chorus of critics who slammed the NFSS study for its flawed methodology, its wildly inaccurate conclusions and its alleged partiality, he said:
I have always operated without strings from either organization. No funding agency representatives were consulted about research design, survey contents, analyses, or conclusions. Any allegations that the funders might have improperly influenced me are simply false.
The two organizations to which Regnerus was referring are the Witherspoon Institute — an anti-gay, anti-marriage equality conservative think tank that spent $695,000 funding the NFSS — and the Milwaukee-based Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation — one of the nation’s top right-wing funders, which contributed $90,000 to Regnerus’ study. (Interestingly, Princeton University professor Robert P. George, co-founder of the National Organization for Marriage, is also a co-founder of the Witherspoon Institute and sits on the Bradley Foundation board.)
Contrast Regnerus’ claims of impartiality with a September 2010 email sent to him by Luis Tellez, President of the Witherspoon Institute, and keep in mind that the message was sent to Regnerus before his “research” had even begun:
See that? You know this study I’m paying you for? Not trying to tell you how to do it or anything, but make sure you do it fast. We need it to influence the Supreme Court. But remember, I’m not rushing you. Regnerus’ response? “Got it; thanks…”
The date of the email shows just how far ahead the anti-gay right was thinking on this: U.S. District Judge Vaughn R. Walker issued his decision ruling Proposition 8 unconstitutional on August 4, 2010. Just over one month later, conservative forces were laying the groundwork for this “scientific” attack on gay and lesbian parents as a way to undercut the legal case for marriage equality. (The other marriage equality case the Supreme Court will consider this month, United States v. Windsor, hadn’t even been filed yet.)
The integrity of Regnerus’ study is further undermined by an April 2011 grant proposal cover letter Tellez wrote to Dr. Dan Schmidt, Vice President for Programs at the Bradley Foundation. In it he asks the foundation for a $200,000 grant to fund the NFSS, and this is how he pitches it:
The NFSS will be the first scientifically sound study to examine whether young adults raised by same-sex parents fare as well as those raised in different familial settings.
This is the question that must now be answered — in a scientifically serious way — by those who are in favor of traditional marriage. 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. [Emphases mine]
So there we see the NFSS’s primary funder, the Witherspoon Institute, admitting that the purpose of the study is to conduct “proper research” — by which Tellez clearly means research conducted by “those who are in favor of traditional marriage” — specifically in order to undermine the “same-sex marriage movement.”
Tellez then tells Schmidt that the NFSS is specifically designed to influence public policy at a critical moment in the marriage equality debate, and reassures the Bradley Foundation that the study’s results will be favorable to opponents of same-sex marriage before any data had been collected at all:
Does this look like serious scholarship to you, folks?
And finally, Tellez expresses willingness to work along with Regnerus, Robert George, Brad Wilcox (more on him below), and the Bradley Foundation to identify other sources of funding for the study.
Resnick revealed last year that W. Bradford “Brad” Wilcox was a senior fellow at the Witherspoon Institute — the NFSS’s major funder — at the time that study was being proposed. Wilcox was also hired on contract by the University of Texas to assist Regnerus in analyzing the study’s data. (Conflict of interest much?) Resnick also noted that 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. [Emphasis mine]
Regnerus, Wilcox, and Tellez all denied that Wilcox acted as a “Witherspoon agent” in his work on the NFSS; Tellez told the American Independent last October that “[Wilcox] was never involved in any decision making at the Witherspoon Institute in matters related to the New Family Structure Study.”
But the documents tell a different story. In the letter above, Luis Tellez, acting in his capacity as president of the Witherspoon Institute, names Wilcox — a Witherspoon fellow — alongside Witherspoon co-founder Robert George as someone who’d be happy to explore additional funding for the study. An excerpt from an email Regnerus sent on July 7, 2011 shows evidence he collaborated with Wilcox on key decisions about how the NFSS budget would be spent:
Wilcox also seemingly approves some preliminary NFSS budget figures, something a data analyst shouldn’t have anything to do with. (NOTE: this is an email exchange between Mark Regnerus and Brad Wilcox; Wilcox’s in-text responses to Regnerus are in CAPS.)
Clearly Wilcox is making these budgetary approvals on behalf of the Witherspoon Institute, not as a privately-hired data analyst. As Resnick points out, the above email thread also shows Regnerus telling Wilcox that he’d like “more feedback” from Witherspoon’s Tellez and an unidentified “Maggie” (NOM’s Maggie Gallagher, perhaps?) about their desired outcomes for the New Family Structures Study.
These latest revelations utterly demolish any claim that Mark Regnerus and his right-wing funders may have thought he and the New Family Structures Study had to anything remotely resembling impartiality and academic integrity. Unfortunately, much damage has already been done: the GOP-led House Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group cited the Regnerus study in a brief submitted last year in the Windsor case, as did the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in a recently-filed amicus brief in Perry. Resnick writes that the bishops
…[argued] 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.’
Last month, the American Sociological Association — Regnerus’ own professional organization — filed their own Supreme Court brief in which they stated that the evidence overwhelmingly shows that kids raised by same-sex parents do just as well as those raised by opposite-sex parents, and that the Regnerus study “does not undermine” that consensus.
We’ll soon find out whether the ASA’s authoritative brief packed enough of a punch to counteract any influence Regnerus’ study may have had on the deliberations of the Supreme Court.