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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