Michigan Marriage Equality Trial Begins Second Week

By |2014-03-06T09:00:00-05:00March 6th, 2014|Michigan, News|

DETROIT – Opening week in the DeBoer v Snyder trial was one of cautious optimism for those rooting for the plaintiffs April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse. On Feb. 28, expert witnesses presented by the plaintiffs concluded a week of brilliant testimony that clearly demonstrated the state could show no rational basis for continuing to discriminate against same sex couples seeking to marry and jointly adopt children.

Day One – Opening Statements

The courtroom was packed to overflow to hear opening statements and initial testimony in the DeBoer v. Snyder federal court case Feb. 25. Judge Bernard Friedman, dozens of lawyers and law clerks and stenographers began the trial to decide two legal issues; whether LGBT people should be permitted to jointly adopt, and whether marriage equality should be permitted in Michigan.
“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. Plaintiffs’ lawyers argued that a huge body of distinguished social science evidence exists, collected over more than 30 years of rigorous study clearly demonstrating no difference in child outcomes for children raised by same sex couples, proving time and again it is not the gender of the parents that matter. It is the stability of the family structure that matters most – and not the sexuality of the parents.
The state attorneys 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 constitutional anti-gay marriage ban in Michigan that voters approved ten years ago.
“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 DeBoer. “We want to have the security that other Michigan families have.”
There were many LGBT families in the courtroom for opening statements, 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 each side’s studies and their authors.

Plantiffs’ Witnesses

The plantiffs presented an impressive array of distinguished, highly qualified witnesses from the fields of law, social science, demography and history – all of whom testified that being raised by same-sex parents is no disadvantage for children when measured by health, education, child development and other outcomes.
The first witness, Dr. David Brodzinsky, is a renowned researcher affiliated with the Donaldson Adoption Institute and internationally recognized for his research 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 supports the strong body of scientific study on parenting, family structure and stability, and child outcomes presented by the plaintiffs.
Brodzinsky was questioned about one of the witnesses for the state, 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 when the study was published in 2012.
Brodzinsky said that Regnerus’ work is “fatally flawed and not credible,” and in fact his research has been rejected by every professional peer review it has undergone. Brodzinsky 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.
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.”
“There is absolutely a scholarly consensus,” said Stanford University sociology professor Michael Rosenfeld, the second witnesses for the plaintiffs. “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.
Prof. Vivek Sankaran, a clinical professor at the University of Michigan Law School’s Child Advocacy Law Clinic, told the court that DeBoer and Rowse have done a “tremendous job” raising their special needs children. He also explained the challenges facing same-sex couples who are raising children together but unable to have both partners become legal parents. Current law, he said, “leaves one parent in relationship without any legal rights to the child.”
The plaintiff’s fourth witness, Gary Gates, Ph.D., a demographer and distinguished scholar at the Williams Institute of the UCLA School of Law, has analyzed U.S. Census data about the LGBT population. He testified that same-sex couples give the same reasons for wanting to marry as do other U.S. adults; love, companionship and making a lifetime commitment. He also testified that more than half of LGBT Americans already have children or want to have children, and same-sex couples are twice as likely to raise a foster child as opposite-sex couples.
The last witness for the plaintiff’s was Harvard historian Nancy Cott. The author of Public Vows, a study of marriage as a public institution, she served as an expert in the historic marriage equality cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.
“History shows that changes in marriage to bring it up to date with changing social, economic and ethical standards, have only made the institution stronger,” said Cott. She explained that marriage has changed over time to become a more equalitarian institution between two spouses, based on consent, with the definition of roles within the marriage left up to individuals. “By the mid and late 20th century,” said Cott, “the state had stepped out of prescribing how a couple conducts a marriage.
“Previous changes in marriage law were frequently responded to with a great deal of alarm and opposition about the future of marriage,” said Cott. “But the institution has proved to be resilient and flexible enough to respond to changing social needs.”

State’s Witnesses

The state got off to a rocky start March 3 when their first expert witness was rejected. Sherif Girgis, a 27-year-old Yale law student, was dismissed by Judge Friedman who ruled Girgis does not have the necessary credentials to be an expert witness.”I have no doubt that someday you will make a very good expert witness, but for now you only have your opinion,” said the judge.
Regnerus then took the stand as the state’s second witness. He presented his discredited research on same-sex parents poor child outcomes, and tried to convince the court that it is only prudent to restrict marriage to one man and one woman until more longitudinal studies can be conducted.
The same day Regenus testified in Detroit, the American Sociological Association submitted amicus briefs specifically criticizing Regnerus’ work in suits to overturn marriage bans in Oklahoma and Utah.
“The claim that same-sex parents produce less positive child outcomes than heterosexual parents is simply unsupported,” said ASA Executive Officer Sally T. Hillsman. “As I have stated before — and as I will continue to state — the Regnerus papers and other sources gay marriage opponents often rely on provide no basis for their arguments because this research does not directly examine the well-being of children raised by same-sex parents. Therefore, these analyses do not undermine the social science research consensus and do not establish a legitimate basis for gay marriage bans,” said Hillsman.
At press time, plaintiff’s attorneys were preparing to cross examine Regnerus. This is the first time Regnerus faces cross examination by opposing counsel. In previous trials his research was presented either in depositions or amicus briefs.

Closing Arguments and the Decision

Closing arguments are scheduled for Mar. 6. It is not clear when Judge Friedman will issue his final opinion.

About the Author: