An American civil liberties group has accused a Tennessee magistrate of going beyond her remit after she banned a couple from naming their baby son “Messiah”.
Child support magistrate Lu Ann Ballew told mother Jaleesa Martin at a hearing last week the name “is a title that has only been earned by one person, and that one person is Jesus Christ”.
Ms Ballew added: “It could put him at odds with a lot of people and at this point he has had no choice in what his name is.”
She also pointed out that the child would be brought up in a county with a sizeable Christian population.
She issued a ruling that the seven-month-old boy’s name be changed to “Martin DeShawn McCullough”, to include both parents’ names but omitting “Messiah”.
But Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, has accused Ms Ballew of interfering in an issue over which she had no jurisdiction, and said the group was supporting the couple’s legal challenge.
Ms Weinberg said that Ms Ballew, of the Cocke County Chancery Court in East Tennessee, was free to hold her own religious beliefs, but that “she does not have the right to impose that faith on others. And that is what she did.”
Ms Weinberg added: “A parent has the right to choose their child’s name. In this case, the judge is creating a culture where she is imposing her religious beliefs on others. And that is unacceptable.”
Ms Weinberg, a veteran civil rights campaigner who has led the Tennessee chapter of the organisation for 25 years, said the matter was so important that the ACLU was supporting an appeal by the mother, which will be heard by a general sessions judge in Newport next month.
The case came to court because Ms Martin and the boy’s father could not agree on a full name. The mother has two older children called Micah and Mason and said she chose Messiah because she liked the way it sounded alongside the names of his siblings.
“I never intended on naming 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. I was shocked,” Ms Martin said.
“Everybody believes what they want, so I think I should be able to name my child what I want to name him.”
According to the US social security administration, “Messiah” – meaning “the anointed one” – has become increasingly popular with parents in recent years. It ranked 387th on the 2012 list with 762 boys being given the name, having first appeared in the top 1,000 in 2005. By contrast, Jesus was ranked 101 last year, falling out of the top 100 for the first time this century.
Ms Ballew, meanwhile, insisted that her decision was made solely to protect the child. It was, she said, the first time she had ordered a child’s names to be changed on a birth certificate. Originally she was asked only to determine the baby’s surname because of a dispute between the parents, but went further when she heard his first name.
Although an unusual move, it is not the first time that courts in the US have ruled on name controversies. In 1984, the California Court of Appeal denied a request by Thomas Boyd Ritchie to change his name to the Roman numeral III, pronounced “Three”, on the grounds that names could not be numbers. The Minnesota Supreme Court used the same justification five years earlier when Michael Herbert Dengler was not allowed to change his name to “1069”.
In 2000, a judge in Ohio turned down a man’s attempt to change his identity legally to “Santa Claus” as the “proprietary right” to the name was public, “resting in the minds of millions of children as well as adults”.
Finally, in 2008, a New Zealand judge ordered a nine-year-old girl to be taken into state custody and legally renamed after she complained of embarrassment and ridicule over her name: Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii.
Family court judge Rob Murfitt said the name: “Makes a fool of the child and sets her up with a social disability.”