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The Plain English Attorney

This month’s news story focuses on an exchange between Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Thomas Minnery, from Focus on the Family. And you know it’s big news because it made it to YouTube and gained a few hundred thousand hits.

In questioning Minnery about the Respect for Marriage Act that would repeal DOMA, Senator Franken quoted statements made by Minnery that children have higher school achievement scores, fewer emotional problems, and a better quality of life when they are in a household headed by a mother and father married to each other and both are parents of all the children. In support of these statements, Minnery quoted a report by the Department of Health and Human Services. Senator Franken, using his usual gentle sarcasm, stated “Well, I checked the study out.” After chuckles from people in the audience died down, he continued by reading the relevant section of the report that stated the benefits were found in “nuclear families.”

The Senator then asked Minnery what he thought the definition of a nuclear family in the report was, and he responded by saying it was a household headed by a mother and a father. Again with gentle sarcasm, Senator Franken responded, “It’s not.”

Franken then read the definition of a nuclear familiar right from the report as families where two parents are married to each other and both are legally parents of the child, whether biologically or adopted, and nowhere in the definition did it state anything about the gender of the parents. In fact, the benefits detailed in the report were applicable to two-parent households where the parents were married same-gender partners and both were parents biologically or through adoption. And this gets to the heart of the issue—prejudiced people will read things the way they want regardless of reality.

One of the things that lawyers have to deal with all of the time is reading rules and regulations in the context of their client’s wishes and best interests, providing an objective analysis, and then highlighting what works for their clients and minimizing and defending against what doesn’t. Where Minnery got caught flat was they started with their myopic viewpoint, inferred what they wanted, and then testified to Congress based on that viewpoint and those inferences. At no point was there an objective reading of the DHHS report before coming to a conclusion.

As usually happens in the world of media and politics, humor most effectively revealed objective truth and people who were not reasonable or objective got burned. There’s a reason why so many gain their political information from humor-driven programs like The Daily Show and Real Time with Bill Maher instead of the major news and cable networks. Helping people laugh at absurdity not only entertains but also makes clear viewpoints that really are absurd or just based on outright lies.

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