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 published in Reader's Digest Magazine January 2014

Kid with cross on his headNoma Bar

The Verdict:

In an appeal hearing in Cocke County Chancery Court in September, Chancellor Telford Forgety overturned Judge Ballew’s controversial order, ruling that the magistrate had acted unconstitutionally by imposing her personal religious beliefs on Martin and McCullough.

Chancellor Forgety found that Judge Ballew’s decision violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, which forbids any legal action that favors a particular religion. Additionally, he declared, there is no law that allows a court official to change a child’s first name if the parents are in agreement with each other about it.

The chancellor ordered that the baby’s name be changed back to 
Messiah. (And in accordance with Tennessee law, Messiah will retain his father’s last name, McCullough.)

Was justice served? Was Judge Ballew correct in ruling that McCullough’s and Martin’s son could not be named Messiah? Weigh in below.

  • Your Comments

    • 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.