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.

By Caitlin O'Connell
Also in Reader's Digest Magazine January 2014

Kid with cross on his headNoma 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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  • Your Comments

    • anonymous

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

    • gtbmel .

      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.

    • nk

      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.

    • Norberto Moritz

      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.

      • Norberto Moritz

        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.

      • Norberto Moritz

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

      • kotoc

        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.”)

    • RichG316

      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.