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

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 »

  • Your Comments

    • Prof John

      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!”

      • Jerry Camp

        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.

      • George Washington Smith

        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.

        • Prof John

          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.

    • Lucy Griffiths

      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.

    • Annie Horne

      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.

    • Elizabeth Davis

      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.

      • Prof John

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

        • Elizabeth Davis

          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.

    • Ex Abolucion

      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????

      • Tom Jones

        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.

    • sweetpea

      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.

      • Jerry Camp

        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.

    • sweetpea

      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.

    • Nancy D.

      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.

    • Cindy

      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.

      • Kyle Daniel Josephsen

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

      • retchsweeny

        Oh the irony….

      • over50_think

        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.

      • Judas C.

        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.

    • Jeanne

      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.