Judge Says Baby Can’t Be Named Messiah Because He Isn’t Jesus
A Tennessee judge ruled recently that a child cannot be named Messiah because that is a title reserved for Jesus Christ.
Child Support Magistrate Lu Ann Ballew handed down the order when the subject of 7-month-old Messiah Deshawn Martin’s name came before her as part of a parental dispute over his last name.
Ballew decided to switch up last names — but first names as well, decreeing that the child should be called Martin DeShawn McCullough in order to incorporate both parents’ surnames.
During a subsequent interview, the judge outlined her justification: “The word Messiah is a title and it’s a title that has only been earned by one person, and that one person is Jesus Christ,” she said. “It could put him at odds with a lot of people and at this point, he has had no choice in what his name is.”
The ACLU has announced that it will help the mother appeal the ruling, and the Freedom from Religion Foundation filed a complaint Thursday accusing Ballew of violating the code of judicial conduct.
“The judge’s order in this case is so astonishingly unconstitutional, it’s only virtue is that the magistrate was honest about her illegitimate rationale,” says Robert Corn-Revere, an attorney with Davis Wright Tremaine who specializes in First Amendment law.
Ballew came right out and said that she was giving her order because of her Christian beliefs, in utter defiance of the language in the Constitution that prohibits the establishment of religion.
“The violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment is too obvious to require explanation,” Corn-Revere says. “But even if this didn’t involve the government imposing religious views, there is no legal basis here for a court to deny or select the choice of a baby’s name.”
Obscenities and Pictographs
There are some state statutory restrictions on baby names, which Carlton Larson, a professor at the UC Davis School of Law, explored in a 2011 paper “Naming Baby: The Constitutional Dimensions of Parental Naming Rights.” Other states don’t have laws in place but do limit names through administrative means.
Perhaps most surprisingly, California bans diacritical marks in names, limiting them to the 26 letters of the English alphabet. In other words, the state’s large Latino population cannot give their kids names with accents like José– and the Irish can’t get O’Connor on a birth certificate.
Other states prohibit pictograms, numerals like 4 or 5 (but not spelled out numbers like four or five), obscenities and even restrict names based on length — Massachusetts limits baby names to 40 characters because of ”technological limitations associated with its electronic data.”
Are the restrictions constitutional? Larson acknowledges that case law is limited, but concludes that limits on names would have to pass strict scrutiny of compelling state interest, to protect the child or ensure communicative function, in order to pass First Amendment muster. Laws banning obscenities and pictographs probably would stand up to a challenge, he asserts, but those outlawing accent marks probably would not.
Religious names in general are not banned. In fact, Messiah was one of the top 400 baby names for 2012 and is among the fastest-rising names for boys. That’s to say nothing of all people names Jesus, Mohammed and Christ running around the country.
Parents have taken advantage of the relative freedom to name their children, as Larson cites a census study that came up with a number of unusual monikers that have been officially given to kids in America over the years: Among them are Toilet Queen, Leper, Cholera, Typhus, Stud Duck, Loser, Fat Meat, Meat Bloodsaw, Cash Whoredom, Headless, Dracula, Lust, Sloth, Freak Skull, Sexy Chambers, Tiny Hooker, Giant Pervis, Acne Fountain, Legend Belch, Ghoul Nipple, Satan, Lucifer, Zombie, Demon, Evil and Hell.
Compared to Acne Fountain or Ghoul Nipple, Messiah seems pretty tame.