From Slate Today:
A magistrate judge in Newport, Tenn., made national headlines this weekend when she took it upon herself to rename a 7-month old baby, whose parents appeared before her at a child support hearing, to resolve a dispute over the child’s surname. The baby’s given name was “Messiah DeShawn Martin.” Child Support Magistrate Lu Ann Ballew spontaneously changed it to “Martin DeShawn McCullough” (McCullough is the father’s name), explaining that although there was no dispute about the child’s first name before the court, “The word Messiah is a title and it’s a title that has only been earned by one person and that one person is Jesus Christ.”
According to the Social Security Administration, “Messiah” was in the top 400 baby names for 2012. (Nearly 4,000 babies were named “Jesus”; about 500 were named “Mohammed”; and 29 were named “Christ.”) The ACLU, pointing out that the judge cannot impose her religious faith on others, has offered to assist the baby’s mother, Jaleesa Martin, in an appeal of the judge’s order.
Ballew ordered that the baby’s birth certificate be changed because, as she explained, she was taking his Christian community into account and “I thought out into the future,” and the name “could put him at odds with a lot of people.” Her decision seems nutty on its face, and will no doubt be overturned, but it’s a reminder of how much freedom Americans truly enjoy when it comes to naming their children.
Interestingly the article says that judges have often weighed in on baby names. Judges in New Zealand have stopped parents from naming twins “Fish” and “Chips,” as well as one baby originally named “Tula Does The Hula From Hawaii.” Swedish officials nixed the names, “Metallica,” “IKEA,” and “Veranda.”
The real question is probably one of legality. On those grounds, I think it is entirely possible that the Tennessee judge overstepped her bounds. However, I can see cases where it could be important to step in. More from Slate:
In a 2011 study of the law of parental naming rights in the United States, University of California–Davis law professor Carlton F.W. Larson found that under New Jersey law, parents have almost complete freedom to name their children as they see fit, although the “State Registrar may reject a name that contains an obscenity, numerals, symbols, or a combination of letters, numerals, or symbols, or a name that is illegible.” This study came after a New Jersey father attracted masses of unwanted media attention in 2008 when he got into afight with a local grocery store that refused to frost the birthday cake for his then-3-year-old son, Adolf Hitler Campbell. (Heath Campbell, the Nazi father, lost custody for several other reasons, and not because his son was named “Adolf Hitler Campbell” and his daughters were named “JoyceLynn Aryan Nation Campbell” and “Honszlynn Hinler Jeannie Campbell.”)