Does the Name “Theophilus” Violate the Establishment Clause?

Does the Name “Theophilus” Violate the Establishment Clause? October 21, 2012

I got that headline from an interesting discussion at the Center for Law and Religion at St. John’s University School of Law. Odd question, right? Well, not so much. Before we look at the media coverage of the case that inspired the discussion, let’s quickly discuss the case.

The Nwadiuko family petitioned a New York Court to legally change their name to “ChristIsKing” — one word with capital a C, I & K as the start of each internal word. The parents are immigrants from Nigeria and formed the “Christ is Lord Evangelistic Association” in the 1990s. A couple of years ago, the father was arrested on the Staten Island Ferry for preaching to commuters and refusing a policeman’s request to clear an aisle. The mother was also arrested for similar reasons.

The major legal issue with name changes deals with the state’s interest in avoiding fraud or misrepresentation. U.S. courts have also recognized an increase risk related to terrorism. But when asking the state for authority, New York has given itself the authority to limit legal name changes “when the choice of name is bizarre, unduly lengthy, ridiculous, or offensive to common decency and good taste,” among other things. From Nawadiuko, 2012 WL 4840800 (N.Y. City Civ. Ct. Oct. 1, 2012):

The application in this case to have the family name changed to “ChristIsKing” … [should be rejected because i]t will result in person’s not holding petitioners’ religious beliefs to proclaim them when merely engaging in the common everyday act of calling another person by his or her name….

To permit this name change would be placing unwitting members of the public including public servants in the position of having to proclaim petitioners’ religious beliefs which may or may not be in agreement with that person’s own equally strongly held but different beliefs.

They give examples of how a government official might be compelled to shout out “ChristIsKing” at a court, a teacher might be forced to use the name of the child against his will, or an airport announcer might have to page the family during travel:

What petitioners are seeking here is in many ways beyond the First Amendment issues of [past Supreme Court cases barring religious speech by the government]. Petitioners will require persons who do not have the same religious beliefs as they do to be compelled to recite as a person’s name a statement of religious belief. In the United States we have the freedom of expression and the freedom to believe or not believe what we want, but we do not have the right to compel others to subscribe to our own firmly held beliefs….

The petitioners were asked if they would be demeaning Jesus’ name if they sinned. The court also worried that if the family visited Nigeria, they might be punished under Sharia there. So as odd as this case may seem, it does pose some very interesting questions about religious liberty. Even some people who thought the petition could or should be denied are highly critical of the judge’s Constitutional reasoning in this case. Others disagree with his appeal to Sharia.

Here’s the Associated Press lede:

NEW YORK (AP) — A judge has told a Staten Island pastor and his wife that they cannot take the Lord’s name in vain.

Here’s the New York Daily News:

Though shalt not take the name of the Lord as your surname.

As for the bulk of the stories, they’re just briefs and not full of much information. They certainly don’t bring up the Sharia angle but they don’t even provide balance or response on the establishment clause concerns.

This is actually a great hook for a discussion of all sorts of things, from the religious meaning of names in various cultures and the variety of different ways the Establishment Clause has been interpreted in lower courts to the influence of foreign laws on U.S. courts. I understand that the mocking approach will be taking by the tabloid press, but this is another example of how difficult it is to cover the variety of religious experiences in this country and religious liberty cases and their outcomes — big and small.

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