The Witherspoon Institute was founded in 2003 by, among others, Princeton University professor and noted conservative Robert P. George, Luis Tellez, and others involved with the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions. Named after John Witherspoon, one of the signers of the United States Declaration of Independence, the institute's fellows include Chen Guangcheng, Harold James, John Joseph Haldane, and James R. Stoner, Jr.
The Witherspoon Institute opposes abortion and same-sex marriage and deals with embryonic stem cell research, constitutional law, and globalization. In 2003, it organized a conference on religion in modern societies. In 2006, Republican Senator Sam Brownback cited a Witherspoon document called Marriage and the Public Good: Ten Principles in a debate over a constitutional amendment against same-sex marriage. It held a conference about pornography named The Social Costs of Pornography at Princeton University in December 2008.
Financially independent from Princeton University, its donors have included the Bradley Foundation, the John M. Olin Foundation, the John Templeton Foundation, and the Lee and Ramona Bass Foundation.
The institute publishes the online journal Public Discourse: Ethics, Law, and the Common Good and, with the Center for the Study of Technology and Society and the Ethics and Public Policy Center, co-publishes The New Atlantis.
The Witherspoon Institute also provides educational opportunities to high school students, undergraduate students, graduate students, and young faculty members. Most of these seminars focus on natural law philosophy and its applications in contemporary fields such as political theory, bioethics, and law.
On October 2, 2013, the Witherspoon Institute announced the appointment of Chinese lawyer and human rights activist Chen Guangcheng as Distinguished Senior Fellow in Human Rights at the Witherspoon Institute, as well as Visiting Fellow of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at the Catholic University of America, and Senior Distinguished Advisor to the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice. In an interview, Luis Tellez, President of the Witherspoon Institute, told Reuters: "We're not asking him to do anything specific... The main point is he's a truth teller, he tries to tell the truth as he sees it." Tellez said that he expects Chen to continue his advocacy for human rights in China in his new appointment, which was set to last for the next three years.
On October 16, 2013, Chen made his first public appearance as a fellow of Witherspoon. He delivered a public lecture at Princeton University entitled "China and the World in the 21st Century: The Next Human Rights Revolution," co-sponsored by the Witherspoon Institute and the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions.
In 2012, the Witherspoon Institute drew public attention for having funded the controversial New Family Structures Study (NFSS), a study of LGBT parenting conducted by Mark Regnerus, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. The study was criticized by major professional scientific institutions and associations, as well as other sociologists at the University of Texas. Documents from the University of Texas at Austin indicate that Regnerus was provided with guidance by the Institute, requested payment authorizations for assistance in data analysis to William Bradford Wilcox, who was an associate professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, a member of the Bishop James Madison Society at Princeton University, the director of The National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, and fellow of the Witherspoon Institute. Critics argue that these documents show direct involvement in the study by the Witherspoon Institute. The methodology of the study has received criticism The University of Texas, conducted an inquiry into the publication and declined to conduct a personal investigation in keeping with its policy that "ordinary errors, good faith differences in interpretations or judgments of data, scholarly or political disagreements, good faith personal or professional opinions, or private moral or ethical behavior or views are not misconduct." The University of Texas sociology department said the Regnerus study was "fundamentally flawed on conceptual and methodological grounds and that findings from Dr. Regnerus' work have been cited inappropriately in efforts to diminish the civil rights and legitimacy of LBGTQ partners and their families."
The study's conclusions relied on methodological flaws. A review by the American Psychological Association, the American Medical Association, and other professional medical associations said that :
... The data does not show whether the perceived romantic relationship ever in fact occurred; nor whether the parent self-identified as gay or lesbian; nor whether the same sex relationship was continuous, episodic, or one-time only; nor whether the individual in these categories was actually raised by a homosexual parent (children of gay fathers are often raised by their heterosexual mothers following divorce), much less a parent in a long-term relationship with a same-sex partner. Indeed, most of the participants in these groups spent very little, if any, time being raised by a "same-sex couple."
In 2012, Darren Sherkat, professor of sociology at Southern Illinois University and a member of the editorial board of Social Science Research was asked by the journal's editor to audit the peer-review process that led to publication of the Regnerus study. In the November 2012 issue of Social Science Research Sherkat published the conclusion of his audit that, although established procedure was followed insofar as the peer reviewers were of the journal's customary standing, they were improperly affiliated with Regnerus and the study's data collection and analysis methods were badly flawed, rendering it unsuitable for publication. In an interview with the Southern Poverty Law Center, Sherkat described the study as being "deeply methodologically flawed and a peer-review process that failed to identify significant problems." Sherkat also asserted that the study was riddled with technical flaws. Sherkat said he thought that Regnerus, a conservative Christian, had "disgraced" himself by drawing misleading conclusions from poor research.
In Regnerus' defense his former doctoral advisor, sociologist Christian Smith, has said that, while "his article is not perfect", "it is no scientifically worse than what is routinely published in sociology journals." Smith, who says he is not a conservative, described the response to the Regnerus study as a "witch hunt", adding that "Regnerus published ideologically unpopular research results on the contentious matter of same-sex relationships. And now he is being made to pay."
Subsequently, twenty-seven other scholars have also spoken out in defense of the Regnerus study, opining that:
We do not think that [the Regnerus study and others] settle the nation's ongoing debate about gay parenting, same-sex marriage, and the welfare of children. In fact, research on same-sex parenting based on nationally representative samples is still in its infancy. But we think that the Regnerus study, which is one of the first to rely on a large, random, and representative sample of children from parents who have experienced same-sex relationships, has helped to inform the ongoing scholarly and public conversation about same-sex families in America.
Amicus curiae briefs to federal courts including United States Supreme Court by health and academic organizations including the American Sociological Association, American Academy of Pediatrics and American Medical Association have criticized the methodology and conclusions reached by the NFSS as lacking scientific validity and being unsupported by the study's own data. A review by the American Sociological Association noting "The Regnerus study offers no basis for conclusions about same-sex parents" Writing to the United States Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals the American Medical Association cited the study's poor methodology to explain why "the Regnerus study sheds no light on the parenting of stable, committed same-sex couples – as Regnerus himself acknowledges," and reaffirmed that "the conclusions by the leading associations of experts in this area reflect a consensus that children raised by lesbian or gay parents do not differ in any important respects from those raised by heterosexual parents."