Tennessee Judge Orders Parents to Change Child's Name
In an unprecedented move, a Tenneessee judge has, unbidden, ordered parents to change their child's first name based on her personal assessment of taste and appropriateness.
The child and his parents were in court before Child Support Magistrate Lu Ann Ballew because of a debate over his surname -- a relatively common point of contention between estranged parents. Yet according to local news reports, the judge took it upon herself to declare the boy's given name unacceptable.
Unlike many other countries, the United States has never restricted given names. Naming freedom is taken for granted by American parents, as a form of freedom of speech. The only demand the government typically places is that the name be a string of letters. (Most would-be *'s, &'s and 33's accept these rulings, but a handful have fought for a word-free identity. During the 1970s, for instance, a man born as Michael Dengler lost a protracted legal battle to change his name to 1069.)
The only case I've found where a U.S. court ruled against a name based on taste was in a child custody dispute. The father in that case objected to the extremely unconventional name the mother had chosen (Weather'by Dot Com Chanel Fourcast). For a judge to step in on her own initiative and declare a name a taste violation is extraordinary.
Judge Ballew objected to the name Messiah on religious grounds. She felt that the name was inappropriate and would give the child trouble in the Christian community, because it is "a title that has only been earned by one person, and that one person is Jesus Christ." Messiah's mother, in statements to the media, made it clear that the name's religious connotations had nothing to do with why she chose it for her son. She just liked how it sounded with her older children's names, and "thought it was unique."
As a layperson with a passing familiarity with American freedoms, I find it hard to picture this ruling, based explicitly on the judge's personal religious beliefs, standing up under appeal. But as a Baby Name Wizard, I see the religious element of the case mostly as a distraction.
I don't view this as a religious issue per se, or just a story of a judge overstepping. This is a bold new shot fired in the name wars. It's a symptom of growing animosity in a culture where naming has fundamentally changed.
As names become more and more creative, and move further and further beyond our national comfort zones, the boundaries of good taste are under debate. That a judge would actually try to "outlaw" a name based on her personal sense of what's suitable is a sign of how strongly people feel about these boundaries. (It's a sign of Judge Ballew's own interest in names that she didn't just reject the name Messiah, but took it upon herself to choose a new name for the child: Martin.)
Many people are applauding the judge for taking action and drawing a line. But if someone else had been in charge of drawing that line -- someone of a different age or cultural perspective -- the same people now applauding would likely be up in arms. Remember, the boy in this story was just one of 762 Messiahs born in the United States last year.
Good luck determining "community standards" in an era when there's no longer such a thing as a "normal" name. Expect more name-based conflicts, misunderstandings and litigation ahead.