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

    • jhg6

      I think parents should be able to name their child any name that they choose. Every country, culture, and religion has different names. When the child is old enough to change their own name, they can have it changed legally, to whatever they want it to be.

    • Emily

      A judge does NOT have the right to make someone change their baby’s name. It is completely up to the parents. The judge is violating the couple’s rights. The first amendment states that people have the right of speech. People can name their children WHATEVER they want. Heck, I’ve meet people named pencil, apple, grass, cow.

    • BisbeeBlue

      NO! Judge Ballew ignored ethics, precedent, judicial protocol & overstepped her bounds!
      The United States of America was founded with it’s unique Constitution. The Constitution established (3, III, three) branches of government–the Executive, Judicial & Legislative! The hand full of INDIVIDUALS and their staffs are usurping the Constitution and all three branches of government—please consider this then register & vote because you are letting another small minority of registered voters (including me) wield too much power!

    • Ted

      I remember when I was much younger… some years ago. I worked in picture frame store that was next door to the local hospital and many young mothers would bring photos of their newborns to be framed. I will never forget one (very) young mother came in with her newborn daughter and photos for framing. I was not the one waiting on her (thank goodness)… I nearly fell over when my co-worker asked the baby’s name and she responded… Her name is Vagina… you know like Virginia only a little different. I stood there in horror and wondered if anyone had told her what the word meant. Someone should do the child a favor and make the parents change the name. Nothing to do with religion… I would not want to be named something that would hard to live up to… Had a friend named Bonita… it means pretty… she hated it… went by Bonnie and hated that too but it was better than having to pretty she said. She changed her name to Dawn when she turned 18… Parents can really suck sometimes.

      • anonimous

        You are absolutely right — and at least one of those parents seemed to be selfish and wrong. But the “judge” was the worst — cannot even do her job, and thinks she can act like god. All she did was exacerbate the problem — and cause more conflict and work for the courts.

    • Art

      Very sad that the first judge who actually doesn’t deserve the title , be so out of touch with the law and our first amendment rights! Thank god the second judge made the correct ruling and restored the law. That first judge clearly should not be sitting on the bench collecting a paycheck on my dime!

    • robb32

      just to let you know…the word Messiah..does not mean “God”..it is derived from the Hebrew word ..משיח…..which means “annointed one”

    • myOWNcompass

      It’s not something the judge had the right to do, but can we all take a moment to feel sorry for the child.

    • Gail

      I enjoyed this article, and appreciate the judge’s sentiments. I think it’s cruel for parents to give their child such a name, but they do have the right. Maybe the judge knew her ruling would never fly, but decided that it might be a better way to express herself than smacking those foolish parents upside the head! You can’t legislate foolishness or stupidity. When will common sense return?

    • star

      I don’t think she has the right to change their babies name, but personally I think its wrong, its like naming your baby Jesus Christ, yes I know there are many biblical names but we only have one true king

      • logic8

        Actually Jesus is a very popular name. Especially in Hispanic countries.

    • CraigB

      If you have to go to court to decide on your child’s name, you shouldn’t be raising a child together.

      I think this is a crazy response by the judge to idiotic parents. Are they going to bring every future parenting decision to a judge? The judge was probably trying to teach them to stop bringing such cases in the future.