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

    • dela10

      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

      • Charles Wright

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

    • Mary J

      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.

      • Refrigerator Jones

        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!!

    • Bram LeBron Jr.

      Lucyfer is such a pretty name.

    • Joe

      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.

    • dyanosus

      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?

      • Charles Wright

        the only thing names cannot have is foul language.

    • rat

      This judge sounds like the Christian version of Judge Judy.

    • Beckie Sorg

      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.

      • George Washington Smith

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

        • Joe Smith

          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

    • Eleanor

      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.

      • Jesus C.

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

    • MaximumJim

      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.

    • Morey Soffo

      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.