Call it the Second Naming. On Wednesday, a Tennessee judge overruled a lower state court’s decision to bar a mother from naming her child Messiah, and legal experts say it was a no-brainer. “The [original] ruling violated four or five different provisions of the Constitution,” says Carlton Larson, a law professor at the University of California, Davis. “So, you know, pick one.”
Tennessee Chancellor Telford E. Forgety Jr said that the previous ruling violated the establishment clause. “The establishment clause basically says that we’re not supposed to have the government doing things that establish an official state religion,” says Kathryn Bradley, a family law professor at Duke University. “With the establishment clause, you deal with situations where it looks like what the government is doing is endorsing a particular religion or taking steps that say this is the religion.”
In ordering that the mother change her son’s name to Martin this August, Child Support Magistrate Lu Ann Ballew argued that the Tennessee boy lives in a heavily Christian area where a name like Messiah “could put him at odds with a lot of people.” She also said the name was, essentially, taken. “It’s a title that has only been earned by one person,” Ballew told a local news outlet in the small town of Newport. “Jesus Christ.” Those comments quickly made national news and made it clear that her motivation for ordering the name change was based on a Christian outlook. “Because she is an actor clothed in the vestments of the state, when she makes a pronouncement … it’s sort of like the state saying it,” says Melissa Murray, a family law professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
Murray believes that, while Wednesday’s decision is sound, there was a better argument to be made in the name of parental rights. “We have a very strong tradition of parental autonomy, of allowing parents to raise children in the manner of their choosing,” she says, “so long as what they choose does not wreak mental or physical harm to child.” Nearly a century’s worth of U.S. cases, she says, have reaffirmed the power of parents to have first say when it comes to their kids, even if that means bestowing an unusual name.
But as some law professors point out, while that argument might be stronger, it’s also messier. Parents’ right to rear children as they see fit is balanced with the government’s right to step in to protect vulnerable children, and those parental powers have only been implicitly grounded in the Constitution. “It’s just easier to say, ‘Look, this is clearly the court speaking in favor of a particular religion,” Bradley says, “without having to get into the balance between what the parents can do and when the state can intervene on behalf of a child.” The establishment clause is more black-and-white, they say.
The judge also could have argued that naming a child Messiah is protected as free speech. “There’s clearly an expressive aspect to naming your child,” says Larson, who has written extensively on the constitutional dimensions of parental naming rights . But that line of justification is potentially messy, too. Larson is aware of no court cases that specifically affirm baby-naming as free speech, and related state laws are vague, he says. There are also cases in which he believes a state could legitimately force a parent to change a child’s name—like if the baby’s birth certificate was covered in a string of expletives or the name was 1,000 characters long.
Legal experts say they see no obvious harm in a baby being named Messiah, however, and this young Tennessee resident has plenty of company. In 2012, more than 800 children born in the U.S. were named Messiah, according to statistics from the Social Security Administration. Nearly 4,000 were named Jesus, and 29 baby boys were named Christ.