You Be the Judge

Can a Judge Force Parents to Change a Baby’s Name?

They didn’t name their son Messiah because it means God, and they didn’t think a judge could make them change their baby’s name because of her religious beliefs. Did she violate their First Amendment rights? You be the judge.

Kid with cross on his head
Noma Bar

When Jaleesa Martin and Jawaan McCullough appeared in 
Tennessee family court in August 2013, they were hoping that the judge would settle a dispute about their baby’s last name. Jaleesa wanted eight-month-old Messiah DeShawn to have her last name; Jawaan wanted another McCullough in the family.

Cocke County Magistrate Lu Ann Ballew quickly ruled that the boy should be given the last name of McCullough, after his father.

Case closed? Nope.

Judge Ballew also handed down a second, unexpected ruling: In 
the opinion of the court, “the name Messiah is reserved solely for the son of God.” She ordered the couple to change their son’s first name.

“The word Messiah is a title that has been earned by only one person, Jesus Christ,” Judge Ballew said.

After giving the bewildered parents just an hour to pick a new name for little Messiah, Judge Ballew called a recess. When the couple failed to produce a name, the judge did it herself, incorporating both his mother’s and father’s surnames into one: Martin DeShawn McCullough. Then Judge Ballew instructed them to amend the boy’s birth certificate.

In her ruling, Judge Ballew wrote that her decision was in the child’s best interest: “The name Messiah places an undue burden on him that as a human being he cannot fulfill.” Additionally, she said the name would offend the area’s large Christian population, putting the boy “at odds with a lot of people, and at this point, he has had no choice in what his name is.” (The judge probably didn’t realize that Messiah was one of the 400 most popular baby names in 2012.)

After court was adjourned, a stunned Martin told reporters that she would not abide by the ruling, saying it was “ridiculous.”

“I was shocked,” said Martin. “I didn’t name my son Messiah because it means God, and I didn’t think a judge could make me change my baby’s name because of her religious beliefs.”

In the weeks that followed the ruling, the case attracted nationwide attention, including from First Amendment defenders such as the 
American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee. ACLU Executive Director Hedy Weinberg issued a statement condemning Judge Ballew’s decision. “The bench is not a pulpit, and using it as one, as this judge did, violates the parents’ rights and our sense that people of all faiths will be treated fairly in the courtroom,” she said.

While Tennessee law does have provisions for establishing a child’s last name, there are no state laws governing first-name designations. Martin agreed to have the ACLU represent her in an appeal of the court’s ruling; the organization planned to argue that Judge Ballew’s order was a violation of the couple’s First Amendment rights.

Next: The Verdict »

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90 thoughts on “Can a Judge Force Parents to Change a Baby’s Name?

  1. Unless there are laws preventing naming a child that, the judge really has no power to make that decision for the parents.

  2. I think the judge’s concerns for the child are somewhat valid but the ruling was not appropriate. I wouldn’t object to the judge being allowed to strongly express her concerns about the name and help the family legally change the name – it is possible that the family didn’t think of the name in the same way and could reconsider. The decision belongs with the family and then the child when they are older. The ruling and the hour time limit was just overstepping her authority. All the power of being a judge is going to her head.

  3. Haven’t there been cases before where judges denied names that were just too ridiculous to be names? I’ve heard of parents naming their kids Talulah Does the Hula and Adolf Hitler being forced to change the names, and frankly, I think that does a huge favor for the kid. Their son will not want to go through life being saddled with a name like Messiah.

  4. I think to name a child with biblical names it’s not such a good idea, but no judge have the right to change it. This verdict must be restricted to very boundaries of petition.

    1. Of course, a very offensive names could be avoid by judge in the best interest of the child; many parents don’t have a clue about how much damage they can inflict on a child with stupid names.

    2. That would be wise if judge had restricted yourself in terms of protecting the child and leaving religious concerns out.

    3. No biblical names at all? I wonder how many children were named Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John? What about David, or Abraham… what about Adam? (You see, there are MANY people named after people in the Bible… even Jesus, which is mostly pronounced “Hey-Zeus.”)

  5. Back in 1957 there was an article in a newspaper in NYC that a couple in The Village had given their boy that name “god” with a lower case “g”. That was during the Billy Graham crusade in NYC that lasted for 16 weeks.

  6. I think parents should be able to name their child any name that they choose. Every country, culture, and religion has different names. When the child is old enough to change their own name, they can have it changed legally, to whatever they want it to be.

  7. A judge does NOT have the right to make someone change their baby’s name. It is completely up to the parents. The judge is violating the couple’s rights. The first amendment states that people have the right of speech. People can name their children WHATEVER they want. Heck, I’ve meet people named pencil, apple, grass, cow.

  8. NO! Judge Ballew ignored ethics, precedent, judicial protocol & overstepped her bounds!
    The United States of America was founded with it’s unique Constitution. The Constitution established (3, III, three) branches of government–the Executive, Judicial & Legislative! The hand full of INDIVIDUALS and their staffs are usurping the Constitution and all three branches of government—please consider this then register & vote because you are letting another small minority of registered voters (including me) wield too much power!

  9. I remember when I was much younger… some years ago. I worked in picture frame store that was next door to the local hospital and many young mothers would bring photos of their newborns to be framed. I will never forget one (very) young mother came in with her newborn daughter and photos for framing. I was not the one waiting on her (thank goodness)… I nearly fell over when my co-worker asked the baby’s name and she responded… Her name is Vagina… you know like Virginia only a little different. I stood there in horror and wondered if anyone had told her what the word meant. Someone should do the child a favor and make the parents change the name. Nothing to do with religion… I would not want to be named something that would hard to live up to… Had a friend named Bonita… it means pretty… she hated it… went by Bonnie and hated that too but it was better than having to pretty she said. She changed her name to Dawn when she turned 18… Parents can really suck sometimes.

    1. You are absolutely right — and at least one of those parents seemed to be selfish and wrong. But the “judge” was the worst — cannot even do her job, and thinks she can act like god. All she did was exacerbate the problem — and cause more conflict and work for the courts.

  10. Very sad that the first judge who actually doesn’t deserve the title , be so out of touch with the law and our first amendment rights! Thank god the second judge made the correct ruling and restored the law. That first judge clearly should not be sitting on the bench collecting a paycheck on my dime!

  11. just to let you know…the word Messiah..does not mean “God” is derived from the Hebrew word ..משיח…..which means “annointed one”

  12. It’s not something the judge had the right to do, but can we all take a moment to feel sorry for the child.

  13. I enjoyed this article, and appreciate the judge’s sentiments. I think it’s cruel for parents to give their child such a name, but they do have the right. Maybe the judge knew her ruling would never fly, but decided that it might be a better way to express herself than smacking those foolish parents upside the head! You can’t legislate foolishness or stupidity. When will common sense return?

  14. I don’t think she has the right to change their babies name, but personally I think its wrong, its like naming your baby Jesus Christ, yes I know there are many biblical names but we only have one true king

  15. If you have to go to court to decide on your child’s name, you shouldn’t be raising a child together.

    I think this is a crazy response by the judge to idiotic parents. Are they going to bring every future parenting decision to a judge? The judge was probably trying to teach them to stop bringing such cases in the future.

  16. I don’t like that the child’s name is after God, but the judge went too far on changing his name. the parents chosed that name and its written on the birth certificate, legally its not allowed and if the judge didn’t like the name, then its not really her business to change the name

    1. dela, you are absolutely right. the name is legal if it was printed on the birth certificate.

  17. The judge told the truth, not as I see it, not as you see it, but as it is. Law should be based on truth.

    1. No sweat he will probably use his nickname, “Messy”.
      If my wife and I had twin girls, I would name them “Shellaqua” and Varneesha”. That judge should be disbarred. I enjoy seeing strange and unusual first names. What about a symbol instead of a name? Remember Prince. Sooner or later, someone will name their child, “!” … exclamation point!!

  18. Judges have no business making decisions having anything to do with religion. The name given to your offspring is your right. No matter how controversial the name is, it’s form of freedom of speech and is a basic foundation of this country. Government and courts are too often weighing in on things they should not be. That’s a lot of tax money ineffectively used.

  19. I think that parents should have to right to name their children no matter what the name is but who goes to a judge to resolve naming issue between husband and wife?

  20. Unusual names, such as in this case, can stigmatize a child. The word “messiah,” like “spoon” or “paper” or ‘tire” are words designated for another purpose, and not as a proper name. Typically, parents who bestow such a name are celebrities, drug users or mentally ill. The mother, Jaleesa Martin, is not a celebrity. This unfortunate child already has a couple of strikes against him. The parents appear not to be married, and are already in court, arguing. Judge Ballew advocated for the child in renaming him, using common sense and compassion. The parents are obviously too impaired to comprehend the stigmatizing effect of the name “messiah.”
    Judge Ballew tactfully avoided the parents’ inadequacies by citing the religious meaning attached to the word “messiah.” Judge Ballew’s ruling is entirely just when viewed in the larger context of the baby’s welfare and the parents’ limitations.

    1. Thank you Becky Sorg. What kind of celebrity must I be to be allowed to name my child messiah?

      1. Hey! you cannot be named after a president… disrespectful! change it to a name that nobody admires… Whose Becky Sorg? strange name. I would not use it.. they would make fun in my town

  21. There is the law and there is psychology. Take the kid whose parents named him Hitler. Children are very self conscious and want to fit in. They don’t want to be different, made fun of because their first name is Messiah. The parents are arrogant, taking themselves way too seriously. This is not an example of humility.

    1. You are right, Eleanor. That child named Hitler turned out plain evil.

  22. The hubris of the first judge is breathtaking !! She would have made a good fit as an official during the church’s Inquisition some centuries ago.

  23. Following this article in the print edition is “Crazy Naming Laws” for a few states. Pennsylvania is said to prohibit single-letter surnames, which would run afoul of Federal Law. Circa 1979, an Army Soldier legally changed his name to simply Bear, for whatever reason I forget. Pvt. Bear had trouble getting paid since the Army’s then infantile computer system did not recognize one-word names. The Army tried to pay Pvt. Bear as “A. Bear,” and “Bear A.” Pvt. Bear refused to accept pay issued to any name but simply Bear. The upshot was that the Army eventually was ordered by a Federal Court to recognize Bear as Bear. Further, I remember reading a note somewhere that there are single letter surnames for every letter of the alphabet in the US except “I” (eye – the font used here might be unclear). A fellow Sailor stationed with me at Dam Neck, VA was SN Timothy Queer (Hi, Tim!) who was inordinately proud during the 1980s of being the Navy’s only officially accepted one. You think “Messiah” is a name that would cause fights? Tim often had to defend his honor of descending from a long line of proud and open Queers. True story.

  24. There’s no accounting for stupid … That boy is going to be ridiculed and bullied for his entire life! “Hey Messiah! Let’s see if you can walk on water!”

    1. That was for his parents to decide…and knowing kids, they’ll call him ‘Hot Mess’ or ‘Messy’ or ‘Messed Up’, cause kids are mean by default, particularly in large groups, much like adults.

    2. I knew kids named Jesus in school. I tried to make fun of one, but nobody got it. They all thought it was normal — and the kid pushed me and said my jokes were stupid, and they all laughed at me. I now know several adults named Jesus. I say nothing. They seem proud of their name — I like my teeth were they are.

      My point, Prof John, is that we should expect kids to respect, not to conform stupidity.

      1. You’re right about Jesus (often – Yeah-sus), but there’s a big difference between a commonly accepted name, which many people share, and a name designated for only one person, that is, THE Messiah.

  25. Messiah comes from the Hebrew word Mashiach, meaning anointed. It was usually applied to the Kings of Israel who were anointed with oil. It also means The Anointed, consecrated as the King and Prophet, by God’s appointment. The parents, who were ordered to change their baby’s first name, are not alone in naming their baby Messiah. In the US alone, according to the Social Security Administration, Messiah is in the top 1000 male baby names for several years. Since that ruling, another TN judge has overturned the ruling, and the baby will go on being called Messiah.

  26. In some countries there are strict laws about names like only a name from an approved list or parents have to have a name approved, and certain laws about naming such as a name must be gender specific to avoid confusion or in some non English speaking countries like Japan laws about the characters allowed in a name. Because some people can’t pick semi decent, normal names that are easily reconized on there own. There are also specific forbidden names in some countries because some crazy parents tried to give a kid a name like Ikea. I think there should be some rules on child naming because some parents pick ridiculous names like for example the Geldolf children (aka Peaches Geldolf) her birth name is 7 words long but she later shortened it because it was so long.

  27. Should we make every boy named Jesus change his name?
    I think not. Yes, the kid may grow up with challenges but guess what… bullying is wrong and there are laws in effect to protect kids from that, too.

    1. Jesus wasn’t, and still isn’t, a unique name, even in the times of Christ. Messiah, however, is a unique title.

      1. That might have been an argument for the courts making little Shalaundromat get a new name (I kid you not). I really do not like the precedent of having courts intruding on such personal business.

  28. I understand where the judge is coming from.
    My name is “Excel”,
    and I cannot ignore what goes on inside the people’s head when they hear that.

    Even my college mock interview was just all about that.

    “Do you excel?”
    “What keeps you to excel?”
    “Can you you bring that excellence in this job position?”

    How am I supposed to answer that????

    1. You can answer “Yes!” — unless of course, you won’t even try to… excel.
      An interview is a quick way to learn about you, and a test… of you, your character… use anything reasonable to express yourself in a positive way. You were given a better chance to distinguish yourself that Joe Smith.

      There will always be something that a screwed-up person can find or invent to make fun, or worse. You cannot control that, but you can control what you do, and what you turn it into.

  29. Have any of you people ever been to the south? Folks love to give children unique names with unique spellings…Just be proud that this family actually knows about the Bible…get off your high horse, and go to a hurricane or war torn area and use your noggin for something besides a hat rack.

    1. Have you been up north? Unbanites love to give their children unique names with unique spellings.
      Seriously, if you think this is unique to the south, you haven’t looked very hard.

  30. Well folks, here is my opinion with a little reflection…back in the day there was Bill, Tom, Jerry, Mark…Girls most popular names Beth, Susan, MARY…Oops was that an uh-oh that slipped thru. Mary, the mother of Jesus. And I am going too tell you that my mother named me after a missionary in some country which was in a religious magazine and just loved the name. Do I need to worry that I am going to have to rechisel my tombstone that I have preordered? There is sooo much wrong in this world, that when it comes down to the government worrying about the name of a child, and us regular folks worrying if our sons or daughters or other loved ones will come home from war…tell the President, the judge, and whoever else you can put on this list that they are already in our pocketbooks, stay away from our birth certificates.

  31. Although I can understand the ‘heart’ of the Judge’s ruling because naming the child Messiah is disrespectful in so many ways, it’s not illegal or against God’s law. He gave us free will and hoped we would use it wisely. It is also not against the 10 commandments. As others have said in their email replies, when he’s old enough the child can change his name.

  32. As a Christian I agree with the judge who wanted the child’s name changed. There was/Is only ONE Messiah and that is Jesus Christ the Son of God. I wish legally it would be unlawful to name a child Messiah, Jesus, Christ or Savior but sadly it isn’t. That’s what is wrong with this world…people who don’t believe in God and who don’t give His name the reverence He deserves. I’m so tired of hearing that we Christians are forcing our religion on others when in fact all we are trying to do is save those souls from going to hell. You can disagree with me all you want to, but that still won’t change the fact that one day soon every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. I pray that anyone reading this who doesn’t know Christ as their Savior will repent and accept Him into their heart, because we are not promised a tomorrow. God Bless and Merry Christmas.

    1. “For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you.”

    2. As a Christian that knows the law-justice was served. It’s called separation of Church and State.
      Pseudo-Christians need to stop playing victims.

    3. I knew kids named Jesus in school. I tried to make fun of one, but nobody got it. They all thought it was normal — and the kid pushed me. He said I was disrespectful, and that my jokes were stupid, and they all laughed at me. I now know several adults named Jesus. I say nothing. They seem proud of their name — and I like my teeth were they are. Proud of their name! Can you imagine? They even go to church!! I wonder if there is a special place for them in hell.

  33. I agree with the second judge. However, I believe it is disrepectful to name a child “Messiah”. It is now considered rude to name a sports team after American Indians even though intended as a compliment (since Indians are revered as strong and brave), so why would it not be considered insensitive to name a child “Messiah”? However, in our society Christians are fair game.

  34. I think the parents are idiots, wasting a judges time on what last name to call your child, Grow up, if you can have a kid and are together, it gets the dads name. Stupid first name anyway.

    1. Only one parent wanted not to follow your “law” — why do you call them both idiots? I know. It’s easier to just talk, and throw “idiot” and “stupid” around –. thinking takes effort. And it takes time for people to agree how to live, and for the laws to cover all possible disagreements — that’s what the courts exist for.

    2. In this century, why should a child automatically get the father’s name? What was the point of the suffragette movement? Women don’t have to take their husband’s names, and children can have their mother’s last names, even inside of marriage. It’s really none of anyone else’s business what people name their children, first or last. Welcome to 2014.

  35. The new names were part of the 1st judge’s ruling he changed the name in a way that would incorporate both last names.

  36. Messiah means “anointed one”. All kings of Israel after David were “anointed ones’ or “messiahs”. The judge was misinformed and should not interfere with the parents right to call their child “anointed one”.

    I know people with worse names, don’t you?

    1. Even though you are correct in the strictest sense of the word, both the Old and New Testaments refer to THE Messiah as one individual. In today’s vernacular, Messiah only refers to THE Messiah.

      1. And
        in “today’s vernacular”, Hitler refers to Adolph, and Einstein to
        Albert; until someone with one of those names is present – and the level of
        ignorance and stupidity of those who “speak vernacular” will show, as did now. Get off your high horse, Prof, and read other books, or at least travel

    1. Yes, You may. Good to see you’ve learned something. Now listen to Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue”, and learn some more.

  37. I believe the judge was right on the money to rule against that name. Her role is to be a last resort to prevent people from naming their child a totally unacceptable name. I consider it to be in the same category as mandatory school attendance laws. Those laws are to prevent parents from denying their children an education; the state steps in and says “no”, the child has a right to go to school, you are not allowed to not sent him. In the name case, the judge steps in and says there is SOME limit, SOMEWHERE, as to what you can name a child, who has to carry that name all his life. It is up to her discretion as to what criteria she uses to disqualify a name.
    As for the fact that “Messiah” is one of the top 400 names given in 2012, it sounds like some other judges fell down on their job.

    1. “Her role is to be a last resort to prevent people from naming their child a totally unacceptable name.” Uh…No. Her job is to make judgements based on the law and constitution. And I don’t believe Don is an acceptable name. We should make you change it to Yahweh. Now just be quiet, you have no say in the matter.

    2. “Her role is to be a last resort to prevent people from naming their child a totally unacceptable name.”
      Please, send a link to the section of the US or Tennessee state Constitution that gives this power to a judge. I’ll wait.

  38. Okay, the couple went to the judge for a name ruling in the first place. Really? We are wasting our courts times with this? Then the couple was unhappy because they didn’t want the first name changed just the last? Stop going to court for such ridiculous things!

    1. Sarah, the use of a family court judge to settle the disagreement on whether the child will have the father’s last name or the mother’s is appropriate. The judge choosing to IGNORE the Constitution means that she really should be relieved of the duty she swore to the Constitution and be sent back to Law School. She should have KNOWN better. Name changes (especially the last name) happen in court all the time. People change their names legally all the time and EVERY ONE must happen or be finalized in a court of law. Whether that name change happens because of divorce, adoption, whim or to correct a clerical error, ALL name changes (except for the one when women marry) MUST happen in a court of law.

      How would you like to go to court to change your name back after a divorce and have the judge say that she didn’t like your first name, either and so she is changing your name to Melody or Princess?

  39. I agree with the outcome completely. As a mother, I think only the person giving birth has a right to give their baby his/her first name. The father can have his say, but the ultimate choice rests with she who labored to bring the baby into this world!

    1. it also depends on nationalities of both parents and country where the mother gave birth.

  40. I understand where the judge was coming from, being a Christian myself, I feel the name Messiah should be reserved for our Lord and Savior, Jesus, BUT don’t feel it is the government’s place to name children. When the boy gets old enough and is dissatisfied with his name then he can petition the courts for a legal name change..

  41. I agree with the first Judge. The term Messiah is a DESCRIPTIVE term, one that describes the savior of the Christian religion. Naming a child messiah is a ridiculous as naming a child Toyota Corolla, another DESCRIPTIVE term. While the judge doesn’t have a legal standing to change the name, you have to question the sanity of the parents by naming the child that.

    1. Nope. The judge violated the Constitution with her ruling. You can disagree with the parents and their choice, but the judge does NOT have the right or ability to impose HER judgement on the situation – especially since she explained it ENTIRELY in religious terms. Or do you want me to decide that you have named your children in a horrible manner and just arbitrarily change the names for you? How about if I change YOUR name to Ares? Or maybe Zeus? Or how about Herne?

      1. Most of his reasoning wasn’t from religion, but that it could be harmful to the child, the new name wasn’t arbitrary, and you said you would change his children’s names to gods not from one.

        1. For the family, any name given / forced on their child by a judge is inherently arbitrary.

      2. The child is going to have a lot of problems with a name of Messiah. The parents did a dis-service by naming the boy with a title (yes that is what Messiah is…a title…meaning savior or high priest). If the boy is smarter than his parents he will change his name as soon as possible

        1. And such will be his right, but until then, the family decided on a name. Who are we to tell someone what to name (or not name) their child?
          I hear names every day that make me cringe, but I would never suggest a judge be given power over the process.

  42. I agree with the 1st Judge, its like would you allow the child to be named God.

    1. Nope. The judge was completely outside of her duty to obey the CONSTITUTION. She used HER religion in her ruling and thus she violated the Establishment portion of the First Amendment. Do you have a problem with men named Jesus? How about girls named Mary? Or the name Noah? What about Adam or Eve? How about Abraham or Isaac? What about Ruth? The parents get to name their child what they want to and you may disagree with their choice or question their judgement you can NOT over-rule the name they chose simply because of your PERSONAL RELIGION. YOUR personal religion has no bearing on it and the judge’s certainly has no bearing on the name of a child who is NOT HERS and she should have KNOWN better. Hopefully this whack-job of a judge has been relieved of her bench and has been sent back to Law School for remedial study.

      1. Try Allah…. and you have the moslem community a good business with you. Or maybe,,, Quoran…. something like that. Or name yourself Siddharta Gautama Buddha.

      2. I agree with you 1000%. But this is the south. I’ve only seen crazy stuff like this in the south.

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