From Messiah to Hitler, What You Can and Cannot Name Your Child

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. (MORE: Judge: ‘Messiah’ Is Not an Acceptable Baby Name) “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 … Continue reading From Messiah to Hitler, What You Can and Cannot Name Your Child