DETROIT -The mood was serious as Judge Bernard Friedman, dozens of lawyers and law clerks and stenographers began the trial that will decide two legal issues; whether LGBT people should be permitted to jointly adopt, and whether marriage equality should be permitted in Michigan. The courtroom was packed to overflow to hear opening statements and initial testimony in the DeBoer v. Snyder federal court case Feb. 25.
"We would like this to the last trial in America where same-sex parents have to defend that they are good parents," said Carole Stanyar, an attorney for the plaintiffs, April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse.
"Marriage is now an equal, gender neutral partnership," said Stanyar, arguing that marriage has been evolving for centuries. She reminded the court that women were once considered property of their husbands, slaves were not permitted to marry and inter-racial marriage was banned in some states until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Loving v. Virginia in 1967.
Battle lines were drawn quickly. The plaintiffs argued that a huge body of distinguished social science evidence exists, collected over more than 30 years of rigorous study, that time and again prove it is not the gender of the parents that matter. It is the stability of the family structure that matters most – not the sexuality of the parents.
The state quickly tried to inject fear and doubt, arguing that the body of evidence on same-sex marriage is too new to draw conclusions, traditional marriage is the only standard that should be supported by the state for the sake of the children, and the court should not overrule the voter-approved constitutional anti-marriage ban in Michigan from 2004.
"Jayne and I made the decision to file this lawsuit because we wanted to better protect our family. We already feel married in our hearts but we want to be married before the eyes of the law," said plaintiff April DeBoer. "We want to have the security that other Michigan families have."
There were many LGBT families in the courtroom, anxiously waiting to learn the fate of their family's legal status. Some came as couples, some brought their children, others where there alone.
"If the state's true interest in upholding the Michigan gay marriage ban is the 'optimal family environment for children,' perhaps the state should spend its time and our tax money on banning divorces and eradicating poverty, rather than attempting to prevent amazing, hardworking people like April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse from adopting special needs children from Michigan's overcrowded foster care system," said Amanda Shelton, a Royal Oak attorney who is raising her two children with her longtime female partner.
As testimony began, attorney's sparred over the credibility and validity of the each side's studies and their authors.
The first witness for the plaintiffs, Dr. David Brodzinsky, is a renowned researcher, affiliated with the Donaldson Adoption Institute, an internationally recognized institution that focuses on family and child wellness issues. "There is no discernable difference," said Brodzinsky. "To a study – it is not the family structure, but the family process and resources that help the children."
On cross examination, the state's attorney tried to discredit Brodzinsky and his research, arguing that sample sizes were too small and same-sex parenting too new a phenomenon. Brodzinsky effectively dashed both objections. Extensive evidence on social science methodology was read into the record, all of which supporting the strong body of scientific study on parenting, family structure and stability, and child outcomes presented by the plaintiffs.
The state's "expert" witnesses will testify later in the trial, but already their credibility is under attack.
"The state's witnesses underscore and 'ostrich approach' to the research," said Stanyar. "All their studies have huge flaws in methodology and have been discredited by their professional peers."
The state has listed four expert witnesses, including Mark Regnerus, a professor of sociology at the University of Texas in Austin. Regnerus conducted a study of 3,000 young adults that looked at 40 measures of social, emotional and relationship outcomes in their lives. He found that adults raised by lesbian mothers had negative outcomes in 24 of 40 categories, while adults raised by gay fathers had negative outcomes in 19 categories, the Washington Times reported.
Brodzinsky said that Regnerus' work is fatally flawed and not credible, and that his research has been rejected by every professional peer review. He said the study has even been disavowed by the journal that published it – a highly unusual rebuke in the field of social science.
"It's extraordinarily rare – I've never seen it before – where a journal orders an audit of a study, and then publishes a statement that the work should not have been published," said Brodzinsky. Critics point out that Regnerus' study only looked at the sexuality of the parents, not family stability. None of the participants were raised by same-sex couples living in a stable family structure.
The state also argued that providing children with biologically connected role models of both genders is necessary. Brodzinsky countered, stating, "The vast majority of non-biological children are raised by heterosexuals."
Stanford University sociology professor Michael Rosenfeld, the second of 12 witnesses for the plaintiffs, began his testimony in the afternoon.
"There is absolutely a scholarly consensus," Rosenfeld answered. "The scholarly consensus is that children raised by same-sex couples are at no disadvantage."
Rosenfeld attacked the state's premise that heterosexual households are more desirable and gay couples should be excluded. "If we excluded people by what group would most likely make the best progress, we would be excluding all but the Asian children," based on academic success, said Rosenfeld.
Outside the court anti-marriage protestors lined the sidewalk. Most had been bussed in from Free Will Baptist Church in Ypsilanti and another group was from Texas.