News | McGill profs to testify against equal marriage

Religious Studies and Law professors invited to give expert testimony in Iowa, and likely in California

Two McGill faculty members may be called to testify as expert witnesses in a landmark California Supreme Court case that will determine whether California’s current prohibition on equal marriage is unconstitutional.

The case, which began last Monday, will challenge Proposition 8, or the California Marriage Protection Act. The legislation reinstated a ban on equal marriage in the state when it was approved by 52.3 per cent of California voters in November 2008.

A plaintiff’s witness list includes Katherine Young, a professor in the McGill Faculty of Religious Studies, who “purports to be knowledgeable in comparative religion and on what universally constitutes marriage.” Paul Nathanson, a researcher in the same faculty, is also included on the list and is described as someone who “purports to be knowledgeable about religious attitudes toward Proposition 8.”

Both may be called to the stand to present academic testimony on the effects of legalizing equal marriage. But if history is any indication Young and Nathanson may not make it to the witness box.

The expertise of the two academics on equal marriage was called into question in 2007 when they testified with McGill law professor Margaret Somerville in the Iowa district court case Varnum v. Brien – which paved the way for equal marriage in the state.

Polk County Judge Robert Hanson rejected their testimonies because he found that neither Nathanson, Young, nor Somerville met the criteria for the admission of expert testimony.

In a written statement, Hanson pointed to their absence of expertise in sociology, child development, psychology, or psychiatry. “Though they may have expertise in certain areas, such expertise is insufficient to qualify Ms. Somerville, Dr. Young and Dr. Nathanson to answer the particular questions that they are asked.”

Hanson further explained that Young’s testimony was disallowed, since she claimed to “[pull] together factors from many academic disciplines, including sociological, economic, political and religious factors, though she does not profess expertise in these areas,” and Nathanson’s for failing to support his observations empirically. Somerville was also prevented from testifying on the grounds that she “eschews empirical research and methods of logical reasoning in favor of ‘moral intuition.’”

Hanson went on to state that “The views espoused by these individuals appear to be largely personal and not based on observations supported by scientific methodology or based on empirical research in any sense.”

Somerville admitted that as a specialist in the field of ethics, she did not have any expertise in the areas of child development and psychology when asked by the plaintiff’s lawyers.

“They asked me about all the things I didn’t have,” said Somerville. “It is perhaps unfortunate that it was so out of context, but I take it very seriously that you must be very truthful…. [They] set me up to get that answer, and that is good lawyering on their part and bad luck for me.”

However, from an academic’s tandpoint, Nathanson, Young, and Somerville are considered controversial within Canada. Young and Nathanson have been criticized for their methodology in their writings on misandry, where they argue that men are victimized by various forms of feminism and popular culture. In 2006, faculty at Toronto’s Ryerson University turned their backs on Somerville at a ceremony granting her an honorary doctorate in protest of her opposition to equal marriage.

Young declined to comment on her testimony in Varnum v. Brien and on her involvement in the California case.