Publicly Funded Discrimination: Marriage Promotion

Jen Heitel Yakush

The rights to love, marry, and form a family unit are fundamental human rights. But the current marriage-promotion initiatives, carried out with enthusiasm by the Bush administration, exclusively promote heterosexual marriage.

As the federal government continues to cut and under-fund social programs in desperate need of resources, it persists in spending hundreds of millions of dollars every year on ideologically motivated schemes such as the Healthy Marriage Initiative and abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. Over the past several years, the federal government has created a fully federally-funded marriage-promotion movement and industry comprised of faith-based and community organizations that promote particular types of individuals and families, while penalizing and stigmatizing others.

SIECUS recently released a special report on this subject titled Legalized Discrimination: The Rise of the Marriage-Promotion Industry and How Federally Funded Programs Discriminate Against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Youth and Families. The special report examines these issues and documents the rise of the federal government's involvement in promoting heterosexual marriage as the only morally acceptable life choice and discriminating against individuals who do not fit that mold. The report follows the money and the under-the-radar convergence of both programs and funding, and looks closely at the conservative social agenda behind these programs and how they legalize discrimination against LGBT individuals, LGBT youth, LGBT parents, and their children.

The rights to love, marry, and form a family unit are fundamental human rights. A couple's decision to form a family and enter into a lasting union, including a legal marriage, should only be commended, supported, and affirmed by society. However, the current marriage-promotion initiatives, carried out with enthusiasm by the Bush administration, exclusively promote heterosexual marriage. They are discriminatory at their very core, threatening the rights of LGBT individuals, youth, and families, and violating basic American values. Sold as public health and social welfare programs, they use billions of federal taxpayer dollars to push a narrow, conservative agenda that promotes heterosexual marriage above all else-above public health, medical opinion, scientific evidence, and basic human rights. Most importantly, they push this policy above what the evidence tells us is the most effective way to help people make healthy life decisions in the long term and ensure that they live full and productive lives.

The federal government's interest in the institution of marriage is not new; however, it has historically had no power to regulate marriage, with the exception of federal territories. Yet, in 1996, the federal government took two unprecedented leaps into the realm of marriage-first by defining it in the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and then by promoting it through the Healthy Marriage Initiative (HMI) and abstinence-only-until-marriage programs.

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With the unwavering support of the Bush administration, and more than two billion federal and state dollars over the past quarter century, groups dedicated to promoting marriage have become more than a community of individual organizations with a shared goal. Well-funded marriage-promotion and abstinence-only-until-marriage programs have become a cornerstone of the social conservative agenda and a major priority for this administration. The groups that provide and support these programs now represent a full-fledged industry that is ostensibly aimed at preventing teen pregnancy, but in reality promotes the ideology of heterosexual marriage in schools. These programs serve to stigmatize and demean LGBT youth and leave them, and all youth, woefully unprepared to make healthy decisions in their life.

Marriage promotion was sold as a solution to poverty and the problems facing children in single-parent families. However, if the genuine motivation behind these programs was to increase the number of children raised by two parents, why did the architects of this industry not include gay and lesbian families in the messaging and services offered? Similarly, if the genuine motivation was to limit the number of children and families living in poverty, why wouldn't the government end the perpetuation of regulations that unfairly financially penalize same-sex families? Instead, the government has made life for young people in gay and lesbian families more difficult by deliberately discriminating against them through the messages and curricula used by these programs.

Whether it is an abstinence-only-until-marriage program that has high school students planning their future wedding, or a marriage education program for unwed couples, the government's message is clear-heterosexual marriage is the only appropriate adult relationship. By promoting marriage, assuming heterosexuality, disparaging non-traditional families, and spreading fear, shame, and inaccurate information about sexual orientation, marriage-promotion programs, particularly abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, assert that LGBT individuals and relationships are unhealthy and morally inferior. The overt biases and assumptions of these programs enforce an intolerant and destructive concept of sexual orientation.

The social science research shows that it is simply not true that only married, heterosexual couples can successfully raise children. The wellbeing of all children is dependent upon being loved, nurtured, supported, and cared for . The qualities of good parenting are not dictated by sexual orientation or martial status. Just as growing up in a household led by two heterosexual, married parents does not ensure that a child will become a happy, productive member of society, neither does growing up in a family of another form ensure he or she will not.

Privileging families headed by married heterosexual couples over those led by single parents, LGBT parents, and unmarried heterosexual couples, and the possibility that children would be denied services and life-saving information based on the make-up of their families, is an egregious statement about the American government and our society. The federal government ought not to be in the business of funding far-right groups to promote one family structure. They should not dictate specific marriage programs nor should they be directly involved in offering programs that promote marriage, whether or not same-sex couples are able to marry legally. They need to end these discriminatory practices and the waste of taxpayer money that is fueling the marriage-promotion industry. Policymakers need to end the Healthy Marriage Initiative and all funding for abstinence-only-until-marriage programs. They should not legalize or legitimize discrimination by choosing to assist the children of heterosexual married couples over those who grow up in single-parent households or are raised by LGBT parents. Instead, it should extend government benefits to meet the needs of all families.

Finally, policymakers should be solely concerned with funding programs based on the best evidence and research available. They should focus on such programs as comprehensive sexuality education and safe school initiatives that respect the values and choices of all families, and allow families to define that term for themselves.

View the full publication of "Legalized Discrimination: The Rise of the Marriage-Promotion Industry and How Federally-Funded Programs Discriminate Against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Youth and Families" here.

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