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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  • John M.

    What if I don’t happen to think that Kareem Abdul Jabbar is either Kareem or Abdul Jabbar?


  • suburbanbanshee

    Obviously, this judge isn’t a friend of Dorothy, because atheists are forced to call Dorothy a “gift of God” when they don’t even believe in God. And yet, I’m sure he’s perfectly willing to rule on what’s an “act of God,” whether the insurance company is dealing with an atheist, a Christian, or indeed a Muslim under sharia law.

    So yeah, obviously furrin tongues and lawyer languages get all kinds of special privileges in the US.

    Also, the judge is apparently not from Massachusetts, and is unfamiliar with the names of the Puritans of yore. Christ-Is-King is nothing, compared to names like “Praise God Barebone,” and his son, “Hadst Christ Not Died for Thee Thou Wouldst Be Damned Barebone.”

  • suburbanbanshee

    Seriously, though… there are a ton of traditional surnames, in all languages that have ’em, which are explicitly religious. The US has city names which are explicitly religious, even. So how can the judge say, “that Hispanic dude with the last name Santiago is perfectly normal, but that Nigerian dude with the last name of Cristorey is illegal”?

  • There are a ton of common Hebrew names that have explicit religious meanings. Like, you know, Michael (who is like unto God?) and Elijah (my God is the Lord). Indeed, John, Mary, Elizabeth – these are all proclamations of a religious sentiment.

    Perhaps one of the issues is not so much what the name means but the fact that he is changing it to have that meaning. On the other hand, given the preponderance of names with religious meanings, I don’t see why that matters.

    • Ted Seeber

      I must remember this angle next time I meet a “Freedom From” anti-religious New Atheist named Michael.

  • sari

    Wow! Follow his reasoning and every name with the word Chr–t in it, a word Jews are forbidden to utter, would be purged. Texas would lose Corpus C and all the Christophers, Christines, Christian(e)s, and permutations of such would be magically transformed to religion neutral names like Rock, Oak, and Sky. Many religious Jews will gloss over this word and Saint rather than pronounce them fully.

    Do any of the articles mention the judge’s faith? There may be more to this ruling than constitutional law.

    • Martha

      Sorry, sari, “rock”, “oak” and “sky” are not religiously neutral. Or do you really intend to insult our animist, pantheist, neo-pagan and Wiccan brothers and sisters?


      • Also, the name Peter (as in St. Peter) means Rock. The Sky (=heaven) is God’s throne (Mt 5:34). And the Oak is a tree sacred to the Norse god Odin. But Sari’s point isn’t about the examples she gave per se, and that point is well taken.

        • sari

          Authentic Bio–you got it. Every word is objectionable to someone. Heck, a friend employed at HRS had us in stitches as she recounted unique names she’d encountered while enrolling applicants in the WIC program. Some of these were mispronounced but correctly spelled names of female genitalia. I find that offensive (imagine those children’s poor teachers as they call roll) but feel it’s outside the scope of the law to dictate who calls who what.

          Martha, I meant no offense. These are common names in many societies. Native Americans came to mind when I wrote the post, but these names are less common to those steeped in either Christian or Jewish Scripture and uncommon in the U.S. at this time.

          • Martha

            sari, I was being tongue-in-cheek in that there are few really truly neutral names because everything has an origin in a concrete example, and if we try excluding anything pertaining to religion, next thing the judge will have to insist the city of San Francisco changes its name 🙂

  • John M.

    The most charitable option I can think of here is that the judge is just genuinely ignorant of the religious origin of most given names in our culture.


  • JoeMerl

    Personally I don’t mind a little playfulness in the lede of an odd story, as long as it otherwise gives information and treats the issue seriously.
    Also, I’m now having fun imagining somebody with a religious objection to their name purposefully mispronouncing it as “Kriss-ist-ing.”
    Also-also, I remember a few years back somebody who tried to have their name changed to “God.” It was denied, and he eventually settled on “I Am Who I Am,” if I recall.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    Given the tens of thousands if peopke whose first name is Jesus or Christian, and the many whose last name us Christiansen ir variations of it, the denial of this petition is an arbitrary denial of religioys freedom. A court dictating that it will not allow Christ-related names is a government intervention in a religious matter that violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Government employees are not expressing a religioys belief when they pronounce someone’s name. They need to man up and be less hypersensitive about the potential religioys intent of a name. People in the Navy don’t get in a twit over referring to submarines named afyer cities with religioys names lije Corpys Christi, Los Angeles, San Diego or San Francisco. Such names are attached to all sorts of Federal lands, including national monuments and national forests, especially in the Southwest. In Utah there are cities and peopke with names from the Book of Mormon. The judge needs to get off his high horse of thinking that his oersonal distaste for religious names has anything to do with principkes of law. When it comes down to any First Amendment confrontation between somone making a statement an those wanting to censor those statements, the First Amendmebt says that free speech wins.

    • Kristen inDallas

      Technically, it’s NOT a violation of religious freedom, as no religion I’m aware of requires adherents to take on any particular surname. They’re not being denied the name change because they’re Christian, nor are they being denied a practice which is essential to their faith, their being denied a name change because one judge thinks it might offend someone. It is an arbitray enforcement of an arbitrary law, and that ought to concern anyone. (Including hollywood couples who want to name their kid apple, forcing microsoft lovers everywhere to advetise for a company they oppose everytime they use the childs name….)

      • str

        Technically, every sentence beginning with “technically” is bound to be a stupid one.

        Now, religious freedom does mean the freedom to do what one of a certain collection of religions or denominations requires, it means, as an extension of the freedom of conscience, to live according to one’s conscience. Maybe the preacher in question THINKS that God requires him to go by that name, maybe he doesn’t. This is all irrelevant as a secular government cannot be the judge of that.

        OTOH, the judge’s reasoning is a clear violation of text and intent of the First Amendment, at least in its traditional extension beyond “laws passed by Congress”. It is an organ of government denying somebody something due to his religion.

        Personally, I think the name-change silly. But people are entitled to do silly things. The name change is not obscene and the only reasoning valid to deny it is the name being unwieldy.

  • deiseach

    So in the state of New York, a court clerk could refuse to page “Jésus García Ramírez” because that would mean he or she had to proclaim the name of a deity or important spiritual figure he or she did not personally believe in?
    Other offensive because religiously-derived surnames: Abbey, Abel, Abraham(s) – F. Murray, Abraham, did you realise your surname is offensive to non-Judaeo-Christians? Change it at once! – Adam(s) – oh no, you actually had a president with such a surname! Clear violation of the establishment of religion clause! – Austin (because that is a diminutive of Augustine, which is the name of two Roman Catholic saints, he of Hippo and he of Canterbury), Bennet (because that is derived from Benedict, which we have a pope of that name right now!), Bishop (do I really need to explain this one?), Buckley (derived from Norman-French beauclerc, meaning ‘fair/handsome clergyman’), Cross (especially offensive), Purefoy (more Norman-French meaning ‘pure/true faith’ and an “unwitting member of the public” is expected to say, hear or read this offensive term in a public place?????).

    I could go on, but you get the point 🙂

  • Most commenters here seem to be missing a crucial point. The name is not being rejected for religious content but because it is a creedal assertion. Thus, neither Jesus Santiago nor Omar Mohammed are proper analogies. A proper analogy would be: ThereIsNoGodButAllah AndMohammedIsHisProphet. Only this last example requires a creedal assertion in order to merely pronounce the name.

    • str

      What kind of a reasoning is this?! It doesn’t change anything – the state would still be arbiter of religion.

      And note that your name is a “creedal assertion” (sic!) too as there will be many others that do not think you a gift of God. If that doesn’t count, one would at least have to outlaw “Elijah”, “Joshua/Jesus” or even “Daniel”, which loudly proclaim that YHWH is God, that YHWH saves and that God is judge. Our “enlightened” times surely cannot tolerate something that judgemental.

  • Adam

    I would have liked more background on the family. The AP story says, “The couple’s request six years ago to change their son Jeremy’s first name to JesusIsLord also was denied by the same judge.” What made them decide, six years ago, to change their son’s name? Did they convert to Christianity after he was born? Presumably they could have named him JesusIsLord at birth with no problem; why did they only decide later that they wanted this name? has a little more background than the linked articles: . It looks like his history with the law extends beyond asking the courts for name changes: “After the preacher was taken to a ‘secure location,’ he allegedly bit the officer’s forearm, bruising it.” (

  • Jon in the Nati

    Does no one see anything wrong with the first sentence of the Daily News article?

    I always new the NYDN was a ‘gahbage’ publication.