It seemed like a minor adjustment. To comply with the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling that legalized gay marriage in 2003, the state Registry of Vital Records and Statistics said it needed to revise its birth certificate forms for babies born to same-sex couples. The box for “father” would be relabeled “father or second parent,’’ reflecting the new law.
But to then-Governor Mitt Romney, who opposed child-rearing by gay couples, the proposal symbolized unacceptable changes in traditional family structures.
He rejected the Registry of Vital Records plan and insisted that his top legal staff individually review the circumstances of every birth to same-sex parents. Only after winning approval from Romney’s lawyers could hospital officials and town clerks across the state be permitted to cross out by hand the word “father’’ on individual birth certificates, and then write in “second parent,’’ in ink.
Divisions between the governor’s office and state bureaucrats over the language on the forms and details about the extraordinary effort by the Republican governor to prevent routine recording of births to gay parents are contained in state records obtained by the Globe this month.
Deliberations about the policies, including dozens of exchanges about the marriages and births of individual families, are recounted in e-mails and legal memos sent between the governor’s office and lawyers at the Department of Public Health, which oversees the Registry of Vital Records.
The practice of requiring high-level legal review continued for the rest of Romney’s term, despite a warning from a Department of Public Health lawyer who said such a system placed the children of same-sex parents at an unfair disadvantage.
Crossouts and handwritten alterations constituted “violations of existing statutes’’ and harmed “the integrity of the vital record-keeping system,’’ the deputy general counsel of the department, Peggy Wiesenberg, warned in a confidential Dec. 13, 2004, memo to Mark Nielsen, Romney’s general counsel.
The changes also would impair law enforcement and security efforts in a post-9/11 world, she said, and children with altered certificates would be likely to “encounter [difficulties] later in life . . . as they try to register for school, or apply for a passport or a driver’s license, or enlist in the military, or register to vote.”
Romney’s interventions mostly resulted in delays awarding birth certificates for women married to same-sex partners who gave birth. Gay men seeking parental rights were required to take a different route, by obtaining a court order. By law, birth certificates must be issued within 10 days of birth, and in some instances, those deadlines were not met.
Most of the birth-certificate reviews by the governor’s office appeared cursory. For example, health department deputy counsel Wiesenberg e-mailed Brian Leske and Nielsen on Dec. 23, 2004, to ask permission to issue a certificate regarding one birth: “Birth at UMass Memorial Medical Center. Facts (married mother, same sex spouse, anonymous donor) are similar to 23 other cases that Mark has reviewed . . . [and] instruct[ed] the hospital to list mother & same sex spouse as the second parent on the child’s birth certificate.”
Leske e-mailed back: “You are authorized to inform the Medical Center that may list the same sex spouse as a second parent on the birth certificate.”
In one instance, in which a couple asked that the handwritten alteration for the second parent say “wife” instead of second parent, the request was denied. In another, Leske refused to allow a birth certificate to be issued listing a same-sex couple as the parents because they were not married.
The Romney campaign declined to comment.
In 2005, the state’s association of town clerks garnered some attention when it complained publicly about the absence of updated forms, calling handwritten changes inappropriate.
Romney’s insistence on scrutiny harmed the ‘integrity of the vital record-keeping system,’ one official said.
At that time, Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom said that the Registry of Vital Records had not changed the birth certificate form because such a change required an act of the state Legislature.
That assertion was contradicted by Wiesenberg, the Department of Public Health lawyer, who told Romney’s lawyers the previous year that authority to make the changes rested with the Department of Public Health.
The paper trail suggests other factors were at work beyond a lack of legislative action, and Romney’s public statements left no doubt that he was opposed to marriage and parenting by same-sex couples.
After presenting their proposal for revised forms to Romney’s chief of staff Beth Myers in May 2004, Department of Public Health officials were told by a Romney staff lawyer via e-mail that “there appear to be many complicated issues that should be discussed with many different communities before the changes are made.’’
The next month, Romney delivered remarks before the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington in which he decried the state Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling and its effect on child-rearing. He outlined his misgivings about the request from the Registry of Vital Records.
“The children of America have the right to have a father and a mother,’’ Romney said in his prepared remarks. “What should be the ideal for raising a child? Not a village, not ‘parent A’ and ‘parent B,’ but a mother and a father.’’
Romney also warned about the societal impact of gay parents raising children. “Scientific studies of children raised by same-sex couples are almost nonexistent,’’ he said. “It may affect the development of children and thereby future society as a whole.’’
Romney expressed similar beliefs during a speech in 2005 to socially conservative voters in South Carolina, as he was beginning to be viewed as a serious candidate for president.
“Some gays are actually having children born to them,’’ he declared. “It’s not right on paper. It’s not right in fact. Every child has a right to a mother and father.’’
Changes to Massachusetts birth certificates formally acknowledging children to same-sex marriages did not come into effect until after Governor Deval Patrick, a Democrat, assumed office.
The birth-certificates episode reflects a constantly evolving approach on gay rights for the former Massachusetts governor. Romney ran for Senate in 1994 promising to be a moderate champion of homosexual rights.
But he hardened his stance while governor and during preparations for his 2008 run for president, as he sought support from the religious conservatives who vote disproportionately in Republican presidential primaries.
After the Supreme Judicial Court ruling, he actively supported efforts in Massachusetts for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. Those efforts never bore fruit.
In his current presidential bid, Romney continues to oppose gay marriage and has said he supports amending the US Constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman. President Obama said in May that he supports gay marriage, after withholding his judgment for most of his term.
The Globe in June formally asked for records pertaining to the Romney administration’s deliberations about birth certificates.
In a preliminary response this month, the Department of Public Health withheld most of the documents because they reflected conversations between lawyers working for the state and “are therefore exempt from disclosure by the attorney-client privilege.” The Globe subsequently obtained many of the documents from a source who requested anonymity.
Gay-rights advocates have denounced Romney’s intervention.
“The race, religion, or sexual orientation of parents should not matter,’’ said Zach Wahls, a 19-year-old college student and Obama supporter who gained national attention when he testified before an Iowa state legislative committee about his experience being raised by two mothers. “The single most important factor is whether the parents are willing to put in the time, the blood, the sweat, and toil to do what it takes to raise children.’’Murray Waas can be reached at Murraywaas@gmail.com.