World Congress of Families to Feature Anti-LGBTQ Family Scholars

One of the leading exporters of U.S.-style culture wars—the World Congress of Families (WCF)—is hosting an international gathering of right-wing scholars and activists in Salt Lake City, Utah later this year. It will be WCF’s first major conference on U.S. soil, and the event’s agenda includes a who’s who list of U.S. conservatives. Among them are two individuals who have made it their business to provide academic sanction to some of the Right’s destructively erroneous claims about LGBTQ people: Mark Regnerus and Brad Wilcox.

Since its publication in July 2012, the infamous “Regnerus Study” (officially titled the “New Family Structures Study”) has become a favorite weapon in the Religious Right’s campaign against LGBTQ people. The study, funded by the right-wing Witherspoon Institute and conducted by University of Texas associate sociology professor Mark Regnerus, portrays LGB parents in a negative light, suggesting that children raised by a mother and father in biologically intact families fare better than children raised by LGBTQ people.

regnerus and wilcox

Mark Regnerus of the University of Texas (left) and Brad Wilcox of the University of Virginia (right) will speak at World Congress of Families IX in October.

Regnerus’ work has received immense criticism from a vast assortment of academics arguing that the research is not only methodologically flawed,1 but also unethically motivated and formulated. After listening to testimony from Regnerus and examining the study, Judge Bernard Friedman included the following in his ruling striking down a same-sex marriage ban: “The Court finds Regnerus’s testimony entirely unbelievable and not worthy of serious consideration.” Of particular concern is the role of Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project (NMP) at the University of Virginia.

By the time Wilcox took over as NMP’s top dog in 2009, he had established himself as a prominent sociologist in conservative academic circles, building a résumé featuring connections to some of the Right’s leading institutions, including the World Congress of Families and Witherspoon Institute.

Wilcox first signed on as a research fellow with Witherspoon in 2004. In 2010, he took charge of the think tank’s Program on Marriage, Family, and Democracy and, from that position, birthed the New Family Structures Study.2 As Philip Cohen outlined in a 2013 exposé, Wilcox conceived of the study during his first year as head of Witherspoon’s marriage project, established funding (almost entirely from the Witherspoon Institute itself), and recruited Regnerus to serve as the lead investigator (reportedly because he was too busy to do it himself). Records show that he was also paid $2,000 as an official consultant for the study, and ultimately suggested Social Science Review—where he sits on the Board of Advisors—for its publication. Neglecting the obvious conflict(s) of interest, evidence additionally indicates that Wilcox served as one of three peer reviewers for Regnerus’ submission before it went to press.

This combination of poor scholarship and unscrupulous practices was seemingly justified by the greater goal: preventing same-sex couples from marrying. In an email to Regnerus sent in the early stages of the project’s development, Witherspoon President Luis Tellez wrote, “It would be great to have this before major decisions of the Supreme Court.”

RELATED: Read our full research report on the World Congress of Families

RELATED: Read PRA’s full research report on the World Congress of Families

And sure enough, Regnerus pulled through. His study was first reported on by the Mormon Church-owned Deseret News, where Witherspoon co-founder Robert P. George sits on the editorial board. It was instantly popular amongst conservative circles, including legal scholars. Regnerus’ research was cited as evidence in several amicus briefs submitted to the Supreme Court ,as it weighed in on the constitutionality of California’s anti-marriage equality Proposition 8, and has subsequently been cited in legal battles against marriage equality and adoption rights all across the country. It’s also been referenced in legislative debates over numerous anti-LGBTQ bills and ballot initiatives, and has even found an international fan-base. According to a Right Wing Watch investigation, Regnerus’ study influenced the authors of Russia’s “Anti-Gay Propaganda” law, and was also cited extensively in a proposed law that sought to strip LGBTQ people of their parental rights (the legislation classified homosexuality in the same category as drug abuse and child abuse as offenses meriting the loss of custody).

Who can we credit with translating and distributing the New Family Structures Study to a Russian audience? One of the responsible parties is Brian Brown, head of the National Organization for Marriage.

In its early days, NOM (also co-founded by Robert P. George) shared an office with Witherspoon Institute, and Luis Tellez has been a member of the NOM board of directors since it began in 2007. The organization was explicitly formed for the purpose of passing California’s Proposition 8 marriage amendment, and in the years since, NOM has established itself as one of the leading antagonizers of LGBTQ people in the U.S. and around the world. In June 2013, Brown testified in Russia at a joint Duma committee hearing on “traditional values.” Right Wing Watch reported that Regnerus’ study played a central role in that discussion.

During this same time period, leaders from the World Congress of Families (WCF) were also in Moscow, preparing for what was intended to be their 8th international convening (subsequently “canceled,” purportedly due to concerns over Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine3). NOM has been a member of WCF since 2011, and Brown is a big fan. In WCF promotional material, he’s quoted as saying, “The World Congress of Families is THE group standing up for the family around the world. They have done amazing work in uniting all of those who stand for the truth about marriage and family.”4

Wilcox, too, is a long-time WCF supporter. He’s been on the editorial board for The Family in America—a publication of WCF’s parent organization, the Howard Center, since 2009—and this will be his second time to take the stage at one of WCF’s international gatherings. Though it will be Regnerus’ first official appearance, his work will make him a familiar—and popular—face.

Speakers at the event will likely do their best to moderate both their tone and rhetoric while in front of U.S. press, but the destructive impact of WCF affiliates on LGBTQ people and reproductive justice—both locally and globally—cannot be overstated. Just as Wilcox and Regnerus have learned to cloak the Right’s vitriolic rhetoric in academic terms, WCF and its myriad supporters have become increasingly deceptive in their anti-LGBTQ, anti-reproductive justice agenda.

But be not deceived: promotion of the “natural family”—no matter how glossy the brochure or eloquent the speech—is intended as an attack on LGBTQ people and women, and WCF IX presents a unique and important opportunity to confront and hold accountable some of the key leaders behind this deception. Students and colleagues of Brad Wilcox and Mark Regnerus who are opposed to their manipulation of academia for the purpose of furthering anti-LGBTQ, anti-reproductive goals need to speak out. Their work has severe implications for social justice efforts across the country and around the world, but if we can confront these culture warriors in their places of origin—before they board that plane to Salt Lake City (or Russia, or Uganda)—we can begin to contain this toxic spill.


Footnotes:

[1] In a friend-of-the-court brief to the Supreme Court in 2012, a report by the 14,000-member American Sociological Association argued, “If any conclusion can be reached from Regnerus’s study, it is that family stability is predictive of child well-being.” (The report observed that more than half the subjects who were described as children of “lesbian mothers” and “gay fathers” were the offspring of failed opposite-sex marriages in which a parent later engaged in “same-sex behavior,” and that many others never lived with same-sex parents.)

[2] Incidentally, Wilcox’s tenure at the conservative (and controversial) Witherspoon Institute has been omitted from his official CV. His connections to WCF are also curiously missing.

[3] The event actually went ahead as scheduled, only slightly disguised by the use of a different name: “Large Families and the Future of Humanity International Forum” (held on the exact dates and in the exact same venues that WCF VIII was originally scheduled).

[4] Brown spoke at WCF VI in 2012, and is also scheduled to speak at WCF IX in October.

A Baptist Sexuality Summit for the Ethically Challenged

Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission ERLC

When Russell Moore ascended to the presidency of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), he claimed that he wanted to pull the public policy arm of the SBC back from the culture warring ways of his predecessor, Richard Land. The 42-year-old Moore said he believed that younger generations of evangelicals were put off by inflammatory rhetoric and political aggression on issues like marriage equality. But that public stance didn’t last long.

Moore soon faced sharp criticism from Christian Right figures such as American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer, who said, “Since one man’s ‘pullback’ is another’s ‘full-scale retreat,’ social conservatives have a right to raise questions about the new course Moore is setting for the SBC.” Fox News contributor Sandy Rios added, “Whether Russell Moore wants it to be a war or not, it is a war. .. Southern Baptists are going to suffer.”

Fischer and Rios weren’t alone in their outrage, and if the ERLC’s upcoming (April 21-23) Leadership Summit on “The Gospel and Human Sexuality” is any indication, the difference between Moore and Land may be more a matter of style than substance. Indeed, Moore has selected two controversial figures, sociologist Mark Regnerus and Rev. Greg Belser (the Senior Pastor at Morrison Heights Baptist Church in Clinton, Mississippi) to headline the summit.

Mark Regnerus 

Regnerus gained conservative celebrity status this past year, thanks to his 2012 study published in the Social Science Research journal, which claims that children of same-sex couples face severe disadvantages growing up. As Slate’s Nathaniel Frank explained, “The study catapulted him into conservative stardom, making him a credentialed mouthpiece for the claim that LGBTQ equality harms kids and can be blocked not because of anti-gay bias but out of noble concern for children and families.”

“Regnerus’ article made waves,” Frank continued, “because it appeared to buck the trend of three decades of research showing kids with gay parents fare just as well as others. There’s one problem: Regnerus’ research doesn’t show what he says it does. Not remotely. No research ever has.”

Numerous scholars and professional societies agreed, including the American Sociological Association, and the study has been completely and thoroughly debunked. But, as Cole Parke has reported here at Eyes Right, that hasn’t stopped the Religious Right both in the U.S. and abroad from using the patina of academic respectability and authority Regnerus brings to thwart the advance of LGTBQ civil and human rights.

As reported by the LA Times, “When he struck down Proposition 8, the California amendment limiting marriage to a man and a woman, Judge Vaughn R. Walker of Federal District Court in San Francisco said he had heard ‘no reliable evidence that allowing same-sex couples to marry will have any negative effects on society.’” This left the opponents of marriage equality in a quandary, and in desperate need for new evidence to bolster their failing legal arguments against marriage equality and adoption by same-sex couples.

In the wake of the Prop. 8 decision, opponents of marriage equality held a series of strategy meetings at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., in 2010. According to the New York Times, they “discussed the urgent need to generate new studies on family structures and children … One result was the marshaling of $785,000 for a large-scale study by Mark Regnerus, a meeting participant… .”

Among the meeting’s participants was Luis E. Tellez, president of the Witherspoon Institute, a neo-conservative think tank based in New Jersey – and whose co-founders include Christian Right strategist and Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton, Robert P. George. After the Heritage Institute meetings, Witherspoon subsequently provided $695,000 to underwrite what became the Regnerus study, while the neo-conservative Bradley Foundation, where Robert P. George sits on the board of directors, also kicked-in $90,000.

But in addition to the debunking and criticism of the methodology and conclusions Regnerus’ study has faced among his peers and both the academic and scientific communities, it has also fallen on its face in court.

After hearing Regnerus testify and be cross-examined on the witness stand, Federal Judge Bernard A. Friedman struck down Michigan’s anti-marriage equality law in March, and called Regnerus’ study “entirely unbelievable,” and “not worthy of serious consideration.”  Judge Friedman further condemned the manufactured research and its right-wing sponsors, saying “[t]he funder clearly wanted a certain result, and Regnerus obliged.”

Rev. Greg Belser

Conferees will also be treated to the expertise of Rev. Greg Belser, who is not only a panelist at the sex summit, but is also a member of the ERLC’s Leadership Council.

The Southern Baptist Convention, which currently claims 15.9 million members in 46,000 churches in the U.S., has acknowledged the problem of child sex abuse within member churches. Still, too many Baptist leaders—like their Catholic counterparts—have responded to the problem with denials, inattention, and cover-ups. Eyes Right recently reported that Belser is the personification of how poorly the Southern Baptist Convention has addressed issues of child sex abuse by clergy.

Jeff Langworthy, a minister at Belser’s church, was accused of molesting children at two Mississippi Baptist churches before he transferred to serve at the Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas – where additional allegations of child molestation apparently led Prestonwood leaders to quietly let Langworthy go without reporting the allegations to police (as was required by state law). Langworthy subsequently worked at Morrison Heights for 20 years, with no one the wiser about his past.

Persistent efforts by Amy Smith, an advocate with SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), led Morrison Heights to conduct an internal investigation in 2011. Belser initially decided to keep Langworthy on staff, but later allowed him to resign and to make a highly limited confession to the congregation about his “sexual indiscretions with younger males” in Texas.

After Langworthy’s confession surfaced online, police launched an investigation.  As the Associated Baptist Press reported, “Six men came forward claiming they were sexually abused by Langworthy as children in the early 1980s.”  But Morrison Heights (and Rev. Belser) refused to turn over the findings of their internal investigation to police or prosecutors, apparently following the legal advice of Phillip Gunn, a Morrison Heights elder and a state representative.

But even with Belser’s and Morrison Heights’ protection, Langworthy eventually pleaded guilty to five felonies committed against children at the two Mississippi Baptist churches.

Marching Ever Forward

With the checkered and highly questionable pasts of both Regnerus and Belser, ERLC’s “Leadership Summit” on sexuality probably portends that the SBC–and its political action arm–will continue their investment in a corrupt past.

 

Profiles on the Right: Mark Regnerus

Mark Regnerus

Mark Regnerus

 

As certain queer identities gain mainstream acceptance, and as same-sex marriage initiatives pass in a growing number of states, anti-LGBTQ opponents seek to justify their support for discriminatory policies by citing “objective, factual, scientific research.” Why? As they say on the internet, #BecauseScience.

In 2012, Mark Regnerus, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin, published the “New Family Structures Study” in Social Science Research journal. His report claimed that children of same-sex parents faced substantial disadvantages compared to those of different-sex parents.

So why should we prohibit same-sex marriage?  Well, #BecauseScience, of course.

Unfortunately for Regnerus, though, the “science” of his study has proven to be bogus. Since being published (the timing of its release cleverly choreographed to influence the Supreme Court as it considered DOMA in the United State v. Windsor case), the study has received a tremendous amount of professional criticism, including a document denouncing the study which was signed by 200 of Regnerus’ fellow researchers and scholars, and the launch of an internal ethics investigation at the University of Texas at Austin.  Moreover, an internal audit revealed that the journal’s standard peer-review process failed to identify significant, disqualifying problems with the study.

For every example of why Regnerus’ study should have never been published (and there are many), there is an equal supply of credible research demonstrating no scientific basis for believing that gays and lesbians are unfit parents based on sexual orientation, including a new study released this week. Perhaps the study’s most significant flaw is that of his highly touted sample size of 3,000, only two of the participants studied were raised by same-sex couples for the entirety of their childhood.

In spite of all this, Regnerus’ work continues to be used as evidence against LGBTQ rights. Capitalizing on his newfound conservative celebrity status, Regnerus has revved up his activist efforts. In October of 2013, he testified before the Hawaii State Legislature in opposition to the bill to legalize same-sex marriage (which ultimately passed). Earlier in March, Regnerus testified as a witness for the State of Michigan, which is currently defending its ban on same-sex marriage. Additionally, lawmakers, lawyers, and special interest groups have cited the study in legislative battles in Illinois, Colorado, Minnesota, Maryland, Rhode Island, and Utah.

Perhaps of greater concern, Regnerus’ “research” has become a tool for injustice beyond U.S. borders, too. In Russia, lawmakers used the report to promote and defend the infamous anti-propaganda law and restrictions on same-sex parenting. After quoting extensively from Regnerus’ study, a journalist in Zambia concluded, “A society that honors sodomy must drink from this barren and sterile brew in which boys will not grow into men and girls will not grow into women. The Zambia that would come out of this will not contain itself and the socio-cultural confusion would simply be unspeakable.” In a Ukrainian newspaper, Regnerus was interviewed and pushed his belief in the “tragic consequences” of gay parenting.

Additionally, earlier works by Regnerus have also been cited by the World Congress of Families, an Illinois-based umbrella organization for the Religious Right that has played a significant role in the recent surge of anti-LGBTQ legislation in Russia, as well as in broader attacks on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) around the world. And last September, the right-wing Alliance Defending Freedom (formerly Alliance Defense Fund) which gained notoriety when it defended California’s Proposition 8 in court, included Regnerus on a panel discussion at the United Nations aimed at injecting anti-LGBTQ and anti-SRHR ideologies into the UN’s Millennium Development Goals.

The scope of Regnerus’ international reach is significant – before signing the infamous Anti-Homosexuality Bill into law, Uganda President Yuweri Museveni insisted on having scientific input on the matter. The report commissioned drew from a large pool of research from accredited sources including the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, the World Health Organization, and even Political Research Associates, all of which refuted Museveni’s ultimate conclusion that homosexuality was “learnt and could be unlearnt.”

Paul Bangirana, a clinical psychologist at Makerere University in Kampala and a member of the “Ministerial Scientific Committee on Homosexuality in the Ministry of Health,” was appalled: “They misquoted our report. The report does not state anywhere that homosexuality is not genetic, and we did not say that it could be unlearnt.” Two of the report’s other contributors have since joined Bangirana’s protest and resigned over the misuse and misrepresentation of their findings.

Misguided conclusions informed more by anti-LGBTQ ideologies than science is what makes this sort of anti-logic possible. And with the help of a few friends with deep pockets, those fabrications can go a long way.

Driving the national and international spread of this deeply flawed attack on LGBTQ families is the New Jersey-based Witherspoon Institute, a conservative think tank that aims to “enhance public understanding of the moral foundations of free and democratic societies.” In addition to funding Regnerus’ research (a fact that should lead any rational observer to seriously question any validity to the study) , all three of the study’s respondents also had ties to the Witherspoon Institute–as revealed by the journal’s subsequent audit.

Furthermore, Witherspoon’s support for Regnerus is only one part of a much broader, right-wing campaign to use “research” to push back against same-sex marriage. According to the New York Times, “In meetings hosted by the Heritage Foundation in Washington in late 2010, opponents of same-sex marriage discussed the urgent need to generate new studies on family structures and children . . . One result was the marshaling of $785,000 for a large-scale study by Mark Regnerus, a meeting participant and a sociologist at the University of Texas.”

Regnerus has also recently joined forces with the new Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture, already being referred to as the “Witherspoon Institute South” thank to its close ties to the older organization’s founders, Robert P. George (author of The Manhattan Declaration) and Luis Tellez. The Austin Institute might also be thought of as the new Family Research Institute (Paul Cameron’s long-discredited and much-ridiculed launching pad for anti-LGBTQ junk science).

But the propagation of faulty scientific claims doesn’t come without a cost. The University of Texas has begun to distance itself from Regnerus, noting that “the conclusions he draws from his study of gay parenting are fundamentally flawed on conceptual and methodological grounds and that findings from Dr. Regnerus’ work have been cited inappropriately in efforts to diminish the civil rights and legitimacy of LBGTQ partners and their families.”

Despite the overwhelming evidence that his study bears no resemblance to actual research or the truth, Regnerus shows no signs of backing down, Regnerus shows no signs of backing down. In an article written for his alma mater, Trinity Christian College, he explained, “I’ve noticed that some Christian professors see a disconnect between their faith and their profession. I believe that if your faith matters, it should inform what you teach and what you research.”

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And in this case, the value of honest, responsible, factual research lost out . . . #BecauseFaith.