Governor Mitt Romney's administration is advising hospitals to cross out the word father on birth certificates for the children of same-sex couples and instead write the phrase ''second parent," angering gay and lesbian advocates and city and town clerks who warn that the altered documents could be legally questionable.
Eric Fehrnstrom, Romney's spokesman, said yesterday that the Department of Public Health, which the governor oversees, has been has been advising hospitals to alter the documents since last year, when the first children were born to same-sex married couples were born.
Fehrnstrom insisted that the practice is legal. But city and town clerks, who register and store birth records, argue that the cross-outs on the birth certificates could make them open to challenges by passport agents, foreign governments, and other officials. They have repeatedly asked Romney to create a new birth certificate for the children of same-sex parents that would include gender-neutral nomenclature.
But Romney has resisted, arguing that the Legislature must first pass a law authorizing such a change.
''The fact remains that this is a document that could be questioned in years to come," said Linda E. Hutchenrider, Barnstable town clerk and past president of the Massachusetts Town Clerks' Association. She sent a letter in October asking Romney to formally revise the birth certificates for the children of same-sex couples.
So far, only lesbian couples have been affected, advocates said.
Data from the Department of Public Health show there were 61 children born to married same-sex couples in 2004, out of approximately 80,000 children born in Massachusetts. This year, the number stood at 75 by July, suggesting a growing phenomenon as some same-sex couples enter their second year of marriage.
''I don't care whether there is one child in the Commonwealth or 500 children in the Commonwealth affected by this," said Hutchenrider. ''They should not have a birth certificate that has crosses on it. They should be allowed to have a birth certificates that really looks valid."
The controversy is the latest standoff between the Romney administration and city and town clerks over how to handle the wave of new documentation emerging from the legalization of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts in May 2004. The practice of changing the birth certificates was reported yesterday in the Patriot Ledger of Quincy.
In her letter to Romney, Hutchenrider said the first birth certificate she received from a hospital that had delivered the child of a same-sex couple had the word father crossed out with an X and an asterisk written by its side. At the bottom of the birth certificate, a hospital official had written second parent, Hutchenrider said.
Official birth certificates ''have never been allowed with strikeouts," Hutchenrider said in her letter to Romney. ''That calls the integrity of the certificate into question."
In an interview yesterday, she said: ''There are many places in this world where a child will need a birth certificate and just to allow it to appear as it does, I find it distasteful."
In February, Romney, on a political trip to South Carolina, told a Republican group that he was dismayed by the clerks' effort to have birth certificates revised for the children of gay couples. ''Some [same-sex couples] are actually having children born to them," Romney said.
''It's not right on paper; it's not right in fact," he said. ''Every child has a right to a mother and a father."
Gay couples and their children protested the remarks outside the governor's office, accusing Romney of exploiting them for political gain.
Yesterday, Fehrnstrom said the governor believes that hand-altered birth certificates are valid.
''As long as they're recorded, they're valid," Fehrnstrom said.
He argued that the Supreme Judicial Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage put the onus on the Legislature to change the birth certificates.
Fehrnstrom cited a passage in the SJC decision that postponed the start of gay marriages for 180 days from when the ruling was issued in November 2003 ''to permit the Legislature to take such action as it may deem appropriate in light of this opinion."
Nevertheless, the administration did not wait for the Legislature to act when it rewrote marriage certificates for gay couples to say ''Party A" and ''Party B," gay rights advocates said.
''There's no action that needs to be taken for the Romney administration to make birth certificates reflect the nature of Massachusetts families," said Michele Granda, staff attorney for Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders. As the birth certificates are now, Granda said, ''they are valid documents, but they raise unnecessary questions for one segment of the population, and that's not right."
Fehrnstrom argued that the administration's decision to rewrite marriage certificates and not birth certificates was consistent with the court ruling on same-sex marriage, known as Goodridge v. Department of Public Health.
''The Goodridge decision addressed the issue of marriage, and the case with the marriage certificates goes to the heart of the court's ruling," he said. ''With respect to any ancillary issues, we are proceeding cautiously in the absence of legislative guidance."
Raphael Lewis of the Globe staff contributed to this report.