NEW YORK – The White House told the Supreme Court it favored same-sex marriage. So did dozens of big corporations, a host of political and legal heavyweights — and 9-year-old Austin Covey.
“My dads take the best care of me and my brother,” Austin said in one of the many legal briefs submitted to court. “My family is no different than any other family.”
In fact, his California family is different from most. Austin’s fathers, Joseph and Kevin Covey, are legally married. Yet because it’s a same-sex union, the federal government doesn’t recognize it under provisions of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, now under review by the Supreme Court.
But is such a marriage also different in ways that disadvantage children?
Justice Antonin Scalia suggested as much in oral arguments last month, when the Supreme Court considered DOMA and California’s same-sex marriage statute.
“If you redefine marriage to include same-sex couples,” Scalia said, “you must permit adoption by same-sex couples. There’s considerable disagreement among sociologists as to what the consequences of raising a child in a single-sex family, whether that is harmful to the child or not.”
Actually, though there are some dissenters who say that research is not definitive — and some states block gay couples form jointly adopting children — there’s a broad consensus among major medical, psychological and child-welfare organizations that children raised by gay and lesbian parents fare just as well as those raised by straight parents.
Scalia’s comments angered many gay-rights activists, including attorney Camilla Taylor of Lambda Legal, who called them “dishonest and disingenuous” for disregarding the consensus among child-welfare professionals.
Among the groups supporting same-sex marriage are the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Psychological Association, the American College of Nursing, the Child Welfare League of America and the National Association of Social Workers.
Just a few days before the oral arguments, the American Academy of Pediatrics endorsed that stance, asserting in a report that a stable relationship between parents — regardless of sexual orientation — contributes to a child’s health and well-being.
“There should be equal opportunity for every couple to access the economic stability and federal supports provided to married couples to raise children,” said Dr. Benjamin Siegel, co-author of the report.
A much smaller breakaway group, the American College of Pediatricians, has issued several recent statements opposing the legalization of same-sex marriage and insisting that unanswered questions remain as to how children raised by gay parents will fare over time.
“We’re saying, ‘Move with caution,’ ” said Dr. Den Trumbull of Montgomery, Ala., the president of the college. “When it comes to adoption, married heterosexual couples should be first in line.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics, the nation’s most influential pediatrician’s group, claims 60,000 members. Trumbull said his group’s membership is in the hundreds.
Some opponents of same-sex marriage welcomed a study published last year in an academic journal, Social Science Research, by Mark Regnerus, a sociology professor at the University of Texas. Citing data gathered from more than 15,000 Americans ages 18-39, Regnerus concluded that young adults with a parent who had a same-sex relationship at some point were more likely than those raised by stable heterosexual couples to experience various problems, including unemployment, ill health, and illegal drug use.
The study, funded by conservative groups opposed to gay marriage, was widely criticized as a misleading “apples to oranges” comparison which didn’t examine how children fared who had been raised by stable same-sex couples.
Regnerus has acknowledged this shortcoming, saying his survey pool contained very few such couples. In an article for Slate magazine, Regnerus wrote that he has no expertise about children currently being raised by gay parents, but he stood by his contention that a household with a married mom and dad is “the safest place for a kid.”
Such assertions exasperate many gay parents, including William Sherr and Estevan Garcia of New York City. They have provided foster care for dozens of children over a dozen years, and are now raising three adopted children ages 12, 10 and 6.
“I look at my kids and how they’re doing in their lives, and where they would be if we weren’t their parents,” Sherr said. “It really upsets me when I look at all the kids in foster care and how much better off they’d be if they were in loving, lifelong homes.”
Sherr, who’s now a stay-at-home dad, and Garcia, a pediatrician, met 13 years ago in Texas. They moved to Seattle so they could jointly adopt their youngest son, got married in Canada in 2002, then moved to New York in 2004.
New York is one of nine states, along with the District of Columbia, where same-sex marriage is legal.
Without federal recognition of such marriages, gay couples in other states face a legal patchwork when it comes to adoption. Some states make it easy for such couples to adopt jointly, while others — including Utah, Mississippi and Louisiana — prohibit it even though single gays are allowed to adopt.
Edith Morris, a family-law attorney in New Orleans, said Louisiana allows adoptions only by single adults and married couples — which excludes gay couples since the state bars them from marrying.
“If they want to adopt as a couple, they have to move somewhere else, and that can involve a lot of hardship since some states have residency requirements for adoption,” Morris said.
In many states, there’s no statewide legal precedent for adoption by gay couples, and the situation may vary from county to county.
Nonetheless, adoption by gays is surging. According to the UCLA School of Law’s Williams Institute, there were nearly 30,000 adopted children being raised by same-sex couples in 2009, a threefold increase from the start of the decade.
In Brea, Calif., 9-year-old twins Austin and Dakota Covey have been living with their fathers since they were 4, although the adoptions weren’t finalized until 2011. The dads were able to marry in 2008 during a 142-day window when gay marriage was legal in California before voters banned it with the ballot measure known as Proposition 8.
“From my kids’ perspective, they really keep it simple,” said Joseph Covey. “Love is love.”
The Supreme Court, in addition to considering the Defense of Marriage Act, will be ruling in a separate case on whether Prop 8 should be struck down — a step that would likely allow gay marriage in California to resume. Justice Anthony Kennedy, in discussing the California case, suggested that the welfare of children will weigh heavily in his deliberations.
Children in these families “want their parents to have full recognition and full status,” he said. “The voice of those children is important in this case, don’t you think?”
Taylor, of Lambda Legal, said kids, as well as gay adults, are victims of laws such as Prop 8.
“Marriage bans send a message not only to parents but also to their children that they should be ashamed of who their families are,” Taylor said. “We’re not talking about abstractions and theories. We’re talking about real human beings, who shouldn’t be told there’s something wrong with their family.”