The Religious Right deserves criticism for using the “family values” issue to promote discrimination against gays and oppose legislation granting family rights for domestic partners.

Despite the excesses of the Religious Right, however, there is merit in some of the talk about family values.

Recent studies show a high correlation between broken homes and numerous social problems. In fact, the breakdown of the family appears to be a national crisis placing terrible burdens on schools, police, courts, prisons, the social welfare system and, ultimately, the taxpayers.

Much evidence indicates that children from broken homes are far more at risk than other youngsters to experience serious difficulties and become problems for society. They are more likely to live in poverty, have emotional and behavioral problems, fail academically, commit crimes, use drugs, be sexually active at an early age, become teenage parents, and be expelled from school or drop out.

Moreover, approximately 75% of teenage suicides occur in households where one parent has been absent. Over 80% of adolescents in psychiatric institutions come from broken homes.

Research also suggests that the harmful effects of growing up in a broken home can sometimes continue throughout adulthood. Persons coming from these backgrounds tend to have more difficulty achieving intimacy in relationships, forming a stable marriage, and holding a steady job.

On the other hand, growing up in a single-parent family is better than living with two adults who are often fighting or where one of them is physically or emotionally abusive. Those two-parent families should also be considered broken.

As Thomas Coleman points out: “Pushing a pregnant teenage girl into marrying her drug-addicted boyfriend will not help their child. Using guilt to force a middle-aged woman raising teenagers to stay with her abusive husband will not help either.”

Barry Glassner likewise notes: “Research shows that as a group, children of single moms tend to fare better emotionally and socially than do offspring from high-conflict marriages, or from those in which the father is emotionally absent or abusive.”

And, as has long been recognized, the spouses in such unhappy marriages are unlikely to be faithful. Benjamin Franklin wrote in Poor Richard’s Maxims: “Where there’s marriage without love, there will be love without marriage.”

Overall, the evidence has led many on both the left and right sides of the political spectrum to conclude that strong families are an essential element in the making of a strong society. They also believe that a breakdown of families – whether through abusive behavior by the parents or desertion by one of them – weakens a nation’s social fabric and can threaten its continued existence.

The great nineteenth-century lawyer and orator Robert Ingersoll apparently was right in saying: “Civilization rests upon the family. The good family is the unit of good government. The virtues grow about the holy hearth of home.”

At the same time, though, Humanists feel that many on the political right need to reexamine their views about what constitutes a family.

Heterosexual marriage is a great institution, but it’s not for everyone. For example, Mae West said she wasn’t ready for an institution. Plus, heterosexual marriage is clearly inappropriate for homosexuals, and the high divorce rate indicates that many heterosexuals are not cut out for it either.

In fact, the institution of marriage is harmed by pressuring people to enter it when they don’t really want to be married. If a person prefers to be single or in a homosexual relationship, but enters a heterosexual marriage because of societal pressures, the spouse and others will be deeply hurt when the truth eventually becomes apparent. These marriages usually end in emotional devastation, bitterness, and divorce.

The resulting high divorce rate causes many to conclude – even persons who would be happy in matrimony – that marriage is a dicey proposition with a failure rate so high that it is not worth trying. This leads to bad-mouthing of marriage and fewer people entering into it. (As the song goes, “Matrimony is baloney, she’ll be wanting alimony . . .”)

The disparagement of marriage is exacerbated by prohibiting gays from marrying. As author Jonathan Rauch points out in his book Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America, forcing gays to remain single makes them “walking billboards for the irrelevance of marriage.”

Clearly, families would be strengthened if society accepted the truth that not everyone is made for heterosexual marriage. Then people having no business entering into it would not feel pressured to do so, and would not besmirch the institution by becoming further examples of marriages ending in disaster. And successful gay marriages would have the effect of honoring and promoting the institution.

It should also be kept in mind that, increasingly in the U.S., gays adopt children. Not only so, but gay men have children through surrogate mothers, and lesbians give birth through artificial insemination. The result is that 28% of gay couples now reside with children.

Society benefits when these children live with two committed adults – whether same-sex or not – who together have the time and financial wherewithal to love and care for them. It’s also in society’s interest to grant these families the legal protections and assistance other families receive. If the families don’t remain intact, the children may become taxpayer-supported wards of the welfare system or, possibly, the criminal justice system.

Similarly, gay couples themselves are less likely to ever need financial support from the government if they have family members – such as a spouse or children – who will care for them in times of sickness, unemployment, or other hardships.

Further, the available valid scientific evidence indicates that children raised by gay couples are as socially well-adjusted as children raised in more traditional families. This is a reason why the right of same-sex couples to adopt children is supported by the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the National Association of Social Workers, and the Child Welfare League of America.

In a policy statement issued in 2002, the American Academy of Pediatrics explained: “There is a considerable body of professional literature that suggests children with parents who are homosexual have the same advantages and the same expectations for health, adjustment, and development as children whose parents are heterosexual.” Three years later, the same organization issued a statement supporting legislation and other legal efforts to allow same-sex couples to adopt children.

In some ways, children raised by same-sex parents may be better adjusted. This was shown, for example, in a study published in 2005 by Ellen C. Perrin, a professor of pediatrics at the Tufts University School of Medicine. Her findings indicate that children raised by lesbians “are less aggressive, more nurturing to peers, more tolerant of diversity, and more inclined to play with both boy’s and girl’s toys.”

Finally, no evidence suggests that gays are more likely than heterosexuals to molest children. In 1994, a study published in the journal Pediatrics said children are far more likely to be molested by a relative’s heterosexual partner than by a homosexual. And in their book The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse, Ellen Bass and Laura Davis note that heterosexual males constitute the majority of sexual abusers of children.

Because there are different types of successful families, it should not be surprising that a 1989 Newsweek survey found that only 22% of respondents felt that marriage, bloodlines, or adoption is necessary for a family to exist. A whopping 74% believed a family exists whenever members of a household love and care for each other.

As that survey suggests, family values are not based upon any particular legal papers. The values are independent of such documents and include, but are not limited to, love, support, tolerance, caring, teaching, and nurturing.

When domestic partners or gay couples demonstrate commitment to family values in their relationships, they deserve the acceptance and support that other families receive. Coretta Scott King, widow of Martin Luther King Jr., was right to say: “Gay and lesbian people have families and their families should have legal protection. . . .”

To deny certain types of successful families the rights that other families have is simply ignorant, intolerant, and cruel. And it’s harmful to society.