Update: Just the Facts, M’am — The Census Bureau Gets It Right, Rejects Distortion of Data on Same-Sex Married Couples

by Judith E. Schaeffer, Vice President, Constitutional Accountability Center

Despite the fact that same-sex couples are able to marry under civil law in a number of states across the nation (as well as in a number of countries), the U.S. Census Bureau announced earlier this year that, in conducting the 2010 Census, it intended to continue the practice of altering the data collected from married same-sex couples to reflect them inaccurately as “unmarried partners.” In a post here in March, we criticized that plan, noting among other things the intent of the Framers of Article I, Section 2, that, whatever the Census counts, it should do so accurately. We also challenged the notion that the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act” (DOMA), relied on by the Census Bureau as the reason for falsifying the data of married same-sex couples, actually required the Bureau to alter the data, and called on the Obama Administration to step in and report the data accurately.

In June, we reported that the new Administration had listened, and had just announced that same-sex married couples would be reported as such by the Census Bureau when it conducts the 2010 Census. We have a bit more of an update now. Late last week, the General Counsel of the Census Bureau released a legal opinion concluding that DOMA does not require the Bureau to “edit” the data of married same-sex couples to show them as “unmarried partners,” and that the Secretary of Commerce “has the discretion to report statistical data reflecting accurate information provided to the Census Bureau.” As the opinion notes, the Census Bureau is “the nation’s objective demographer,” and that “[a]pplying political judgments about marriage to the tabulation of census data could undermine the valuable neutral scientific role of the Census Bureau as a source of definitive and objective data on American society.” In other words, facts are facts.

There’s a bit of a procedural wrinkle in all this. According to Guidelines also released by the Census Bureau, it’s too late now to change the “recoding” in the 2010 Census products to prevent the alteration of data about married same-sex couples. However, the Bureau has promised that in 2011, it will release the “unedited” data about such couples, reflecting their accurate marital status, as well as a special report in 2012 focusing on “the question of how same sex couples report their relationships.” We can only hope that this is the end of playing politics with facts.