For at least one Tennessee family, it’s very likely that a “Messiah” will return. Late last week, a judge in the small town of Newport ordered that a 7-month old boy’s name be changed from Messiah to Martin, saying that “it’s a title that has only been earned by one person … Jesus Christ.” But legal experts say the judge overstepped — even abused — her authority and expect the mother to handily prevail when her appeal goes before a county chancellor next month.
Legal decisions about children must weigh parents’ right to raise their children however they see fit, an implicit freedom the Supreme Court has grounded in the Constitution, against the government’s “parens patriae” authority — Latin meaning father of the country — which allows officials to intervene on behalf of vulnerable kids. Though many states have laws governing what a parent can name their child and there are times when a child’s name might warrant action, family law professors say “Messiah” didn’t put the infant in harm’s way.
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“Parents enjoy extraordinary autonomy in raising their children,” says Melissa Murray, a family law professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “This is totally absurd … If this stood up in court, I would eat my hat.”
In ordering the name change, 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.” But Murray and other experts say whatever perceived harm comes from a name like Messiah isn’t enough to justify a judicial order. Indeed, plenty of babies would be in legal limbo if Ballew’s theory stood. More than 800 American children born in 2012 were named Messiah, according to the Social Security Administration; nearly 4,000 were named Jesus; about 500 were named Mohammed; and 29 baby boys were named Christ.
The bigger problem, Columbia University Law Professor Elizabeth Scott says, is the nature of Ballew’s justification. “The judge made it clear that her primary motivation was religious … the child’s name offended her Christian beliefs,” she says via email. “Thus her decision violates the First Amendment.” Kathryn Bradley, a family law professor at Duke University, says it “seems like the court really is overstepping its bounds in terms of imposing the court or the community’s beliefs … on the child.” It didn’t help that Jaleesa Martin and the child’s father had gone before Ballew because they couldn’t agree on the child’s last name, not his first. Berkeley’s Murray says she believes the judge’s action may rise to level of being an “abuse” of her power.
When and whether government officials can object to baby names is often dependent on state law. In 2009, three-year-old Adolf Hitler Campbell made headlines when a New Jersey bakery refused to decorate a cake ordered by his father. The business may have been within its rights to refuse service, but the state had little ground on which to object. New Jersey law allows parents to confer any name on a child so long as it doesn’t include obscenity, numerals or symbols. “If the Campbells had named their son ‘R2D2,’ state authorities would have intervened,” Carlton Larson, a law professor at the University of California, Davis wrote in a 2011 study of United States baby names. “‘Adolf Hitler Campbell,’ by contrast, presented no legal impediments.”
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The baby naming laws of individual states, Larson’s study found, vary widely. In California, baby names cannot contain umlauts or accents. In South Dakota, if a mother is unmarried at the time of conception, her surname goes on the birth certificate (unless a man signs an affidavit saying he’s the father). Roman numerals are allowed for suffixes in Texas, but not Arabic ones, so a boy could be Rick Perry III but not Rick Perry 3. In Massachusetts, the total number of characters in first, middle and last names cannot exceed 40. New Hampshire, meanwhile, prohibits all punctuation marks except for apostrophes and dashes.
These rules aren’t limited to the U.S. Spain bans “extravagant” names while Portugal outlaws those that “raise doubts about the sex of the registrant.” And in New Zealand, a judge in 2008 spared a girl of being called Tulula Does The Hula From Hawaii; in his ruling he cited other names nixed by registration officials, such as Fish and Chips, Keenan Got Lucy and Sex Fruit. A 1995 act states that “unreasonably long” names are “undesirable in the public interest” in New Zealand.
While reactions to the Messiah order have centered on the questions of religious freedom and free speech, the inspiration behind the name seems to be a common one: the appeal of alliteration. Martin said she thought the name was unique and complemented the names of his two older siblings: Micah and Mason.