Was a Tennessee Judge Right to Reject a Child’s Parents’ Choice of the Name “Messiah” for Their Baby Boy?

Posted in: Constitutional Law

When a Tennessee couple disagreed on what their seven-months’-old baby’s last name would be, they went to court with their dispute.  The judge then helped them forge a last name for the baby—one that drew on both of the couples’ last names.  So far, so good.

But then the magistrate judge overseeing the dispute, Child Support Magistrate Lu Ann Ballew, on her own initiative, ordered the child’s first name, which was chosen by his parents to be “Messiah,” to be changed instead to “Martin.”

In coming to her decision, Magistrate Ballew reasoned, as she told a reporter, “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.”

A Judge Should Not Override a Parent’s Name Choice Unless It’s in the Best Interest of the Child to Do So

It’s outrageous that a judge would override the name choice of a parent based on the judge’s own religious reasons.  And it makes no difference that the reason for the child’s naming choice is secular: The child’s mother said that she chose the name “Messiah” because it goes well with the names of the boy’s siblings, Micah and Mason. Parents are entitled to name their children as they wish, as long as the name they choose is not abusive in itself, and will not make a child prone to bullying or other predictable negative effects.

One might argue that “Messiah” is just such an abusive name, as it may well provoke both teasing from schoolmates, and the kind of reaction that the judge here displayed, which seemed to imply that the name was not only an imprudent choice, but also a sacrilegious one. But in a few years, the name may not be seen that way. Interestingly, “Messiah” was fourth on a 2012 list of baby names that are most rapidly increasing in popularity, according to the Associated Press.  In 2005, “Messiah” was the 904th most popular name; in 2012, it shot up to 387th on the list.

After Showing Her Hand, the Judge Rationalized Her Ruling, by Assuming That Others in the Community Would React to the Name Just as She Herself Had

In rendering her ruling, Magistrate Ballew noted that the baby boy at issue lives in a county with a large Christian population.  Thus, she claimed in an interview with radio station WBIR that “it [the name] could put him at odds with a lot of people and at this point he has had no choice in what his name is.”

But the judge’s reasoning proves too much.  A county with a large Christian population may also react poorly to, for instance, Jewish or Muslim children’s names. And that is no reason to advise such families, who might like to use the names of their choice and/or of their traditions for their children, to forsake their heritage simply because some of the people around them might balk when they hear an unfamiliar name.  Those who do initially balk, moreover, may well end up learning more about other cultures, ethnicities and religions, if they are open-minded.

Hedy Weinberg, the Executive Director of the ACLU of Tennessee, contended that the magistrate should not have barred the couple from naming their child “Messiah.” In so doing, Weinberg argued, the magistrate—though she is, of course, entitled to her own religious beliefs—wrongly and unconstitutionally imposed her religious beliefs on others who may not share her beliefs, while acting in her official capacity as a jurist.

The judge “does not have the right to impose [her] faith on others,” said Weinberg. “And that is what she did.”  In this instance, the right answer was clear-cut:  The magistrate’s outrageous decision to re-name an innocent child—and usurp the parents’ basic prerogative of naming their own son—based on her own religious beliefs, should make us question whether this Magistrate ought to be deciding cases like these, where families’ precious bonds are at issue.

Posted in: Constitutional Law