Tennessee Judge Orders Parents to Change Child's Name

Aug 12th 2013

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.

The name was not even an uncommon one. It ranks among the top 400 for all boys' names in the United States, and was one of the fastest-rising names of last year. The name is Messiah.

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.


August 12, 2013 1:53 PM

While I think the judge completely overstepped her bounds in this case and her decision should be struck down in appeals court, at least there was a *reason* for the first name she chose. The parents were fighting about the boy's last name, Mom had wanted an M name for her son to go with her other son's first names that start with M. Mom's last name is Martin, so the judge gave the boy that for a first name and the Dad's last name for a surname.

While a clever solution, I wouldn't like to be the child growing up with mom's surname for a first name and dad's surname for a last name. I know that happens otherwise, but when your parents didn't do that on purpose, it takes away from the meaning behind it.

August 12, 2013 4:06 PM

I agree that it will definitely not hold up upon appeal since Messiah is currently #387 on the List of Top 1000 Names ... and, because as a word, Messiah does not exclusively apply to Jesus Christ -- it just means savior or liberator.  The judge really does not have the authority to do this, and so it will get tossed out.   However, I must say this is a perfectly silly name for a child -- but typical of young parents who "want to be unique" ... ergh.

August 12, 2013 4:32 PM

I admit my style is much more "Martin" than "Messiah", but this judge is way out of line.  Frankly, I don't want judges having that kind of sway in this country either.  I understand a last name dispute coming before a judge, and I can understand a judge deciding in the case of parents who can't agree.  But this name was never in dispute and as Laura pointed out, is hardly unique.

August 12, 2013 4:42 PM

This is quite a story!  I agree that the judge doesn't have the right to do what she did.  I, myself, as a follower of Jesus Christ, would not choose the name because it doesn't seem like it should be given to someone besides the Son of God.  BUT, when I think about it, how is it different than names like Emmanuel and Judah?  Both of these names have a similar association and I am comfortable with them.  In fact, my son's middle name is Judah.  Laura is right, the bottom line is that the culture of naming is changing.

August 12, 2013 6:05 PM

I think the judge made a smart decision, regardless of the reason why...I bet if she hadn't brought her personal feelings about the appropriateness of the name to the forefront, we wouldn't be hearing about this story nationally!

Martin (the mom's surname) starts with the letter M (which the mom wants the boys first name to begin with) and is often used as a first name, and she must like it since she was trying to get the child to have it as a last name. Then giving the child the father's last name (which he wanted) well, ta-dah! Both parents get something they want, something they don't! It seems pretty even to me!

Reminds me of the ER episode where Dr. Peter Benton and gf Carla Reese cant agree on names and decide to call the child Reese Benton.

August 12, 2013 6:35 PM

If I were concerned the judge's decision would hold up, I would feel differently. As it is, she made me smile. Not because I agree with what she did or her comments about the name but because I can appreciate the utter frustration over dealing with this type of petty bickering between parents everyday. It's like she thought, well fine, how about we just give him both surnames,everybody happy now, next.

August 12, 2013 7:02 PM

"Messiah" doesn't mean Savior, it means Annointed One.  Not just anyone can be "of Wales" or the Dauphin of France, either.  All of these are titles, not names.

Serious cultural education needs to be taught if people blithely choose names that greatly offend large populations.  Messiah is, in this respect, no different from Allah, Hitler, or Sugart**s.  If the people you meet feel the need to call you something that is not your name because they cannot use your name without violating their own beliefs, you need to not have that name.


August 13, 2013 1:22 AM

I think this additional information is helpful in understanding the case.  She really didn't pick a new name; she was trying to strike a compromise.  I wish the judge hadn't brought in the religion because the rationale about the maiden name makes sense.  But I didn't even realize the reason the judge chose Martin or why the parents were in court until I read the comments.  

August 13, 2013 1:21 AM

Well said Kazzjazz

August 13, 2013 1:52 PM

As a lawyer and a serious name enthusiast, I think this case is fascinating! I am certain that the judge's decision will be struck down on appeal, as it should be, and I hope the mother/parents will appeal it. I also think that Messiah is a really unfortunate name, and its popularity (along with names like Unique) is evidence of increasing narcissism and grandiosity in baby naming. Using the mother's last name as a first name IS a good compromise- for the parents to make together, not for a judge to impose on them. The fact that the judge openly stated that her decision was based on her own religious beliefs (although she seems to see it as a matter of fact rather than belief!) absolutely ensures that it won't stand, but I don't think the judge had any business changing the child's first name anyway, both for constitutional reasons and because she did not have jurisdiction to do so. The child's first name was not part of the dispute, so she was overstepping her legal authority in changing it.

I do think it would have been reasonable for the judge to suggest that they change his name to Martin, if she didn't cite her religious beliefs as a reason. But I don't think many of us are comfortable with the idea of a judge deciding, of her own initative and due to her own personal beliefs, that your baby's name is "wrong" and must be changed. I do understand that it would be frustrating to deal with parents who can't compromise over a child's last name, but that is the judge's job, and it's no excuse for completely flouting the first amendment. Frankly, she is an embarrassment to Tennessee's legal system and I hope she is disciplined for judicial misconduct. Getting a decision wrong is one thing, but making a decision that you KNOW to be unconstitutional is outrageous. 

August 13, 2013 1:53 PM

The judge was wrong to step in when the dispute was over the surname. 

Also, what of the name Jesus, which is used as a given name in the Hispanic community?  Non-hispanic Christians may argue that there was only one Jesus, but it doesn't change the fact that it is a perfectly acceptable given name in another American community, many of whom also consider themselves of the same religion.

Also, the word "messiah" can be defined and used as any liberator, so this makes it no different from using "angel" as a given name.

August 13, 2013 2:37 PM

While it's both wrong and alarming for a judge to make this kind of decision against the parents' wills, I have to say I'm fairly sympathetic to the decision itself. It sounds like the judge found a decent compromise to the issue the parents were having, and I can't blame her for being offended by the use of Messiah for such shallow reasons. Again, it was not the judge's place to, well, judge, but I think parents should think long and hard about using names that carry so much weight in other cultures, precisely BECAUSE they are not members of that culture. If white people getting Chinese tattoos 'because they look cool' is cultural appropriation, if non-Jews wearing Stars of David 'because they look cool' is appropriation, then non-Christians shouldn't mess around with loaded Christian terms just because it 'sounds cool.' ('Messiah' is just a word, people are named Angel and Jesus, blah blah blah. It's about perception in the culture. Angel is no longer a loaded term. Messiah still is.)

August 13, 2013 3:47 PM

I wouldn't be so quick to assume that it is only non-Christians who are naming their children Messiah. My guess is that the culture of Christian naming is changing and that many of the little Messiahs born last year were named by parents fully aware of how loaded the term is and who chose the name as an honorific, just as many Spanish-speaking parents name their sons Jesús (as Eilonwy mentions above).

August 13, 2013 4:04 PM

Not to mention that "messiah" is not term nor concept that is exclusive to Christianity.

August 14, 2013 2:32 PM

Karyn is, of course, right.  Messiah (Moshiach) obviously predates Christianity.  Nor is Jesus Christ the only one to whom that term was or is applied.  At the moment many thousands of people worldwide believe that Moshiach is named Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

August 15, 2013 11:54 AM

Well said, laurzella.  I looked the judge up in the TN bar directory and she does not appear to be a member. 

August 16, 2013 11:51 AM

I don't think that the fact that "messiah" can be used for multiple people/religions makes it less insensitive and inappropriate.

The title "dad" can be used for millions of people in the world, but each of us attributes our own personal, sentimental meaning to that title. To have to call a child (or any other person) Dad because that's his given name would be awkward at best, but more likely it would feel completely inappropriate, and even disloyal to your own dad. To use it in everyday speech to refer to someone else dilutes the importance of the title.

Millions of people attribute the title "messiah" to one person, whoever that person may be. To force them to call your child by that name is horrible.

That said, I don't believe the judge had the right to change the name.

August 16, 2013 11:51 PM

No, no, not what I was saying at all. I was responding to the statement made above that "non-Christians shouldn't mess around with loaded Christian terms just because it 'sounds cool'". In fact, I think that the fact that messiah is a term used by multiple people/religions means that the name should be used *less*, not that it makes it into a neutral or appropriate name.

August 17, 2013 5:08 PM

Messiah is a common name for boys. Really? Are your freaken kidding me??? We live in an age of uneducated morons. This name, as with some of the other rediculous names for babies, is considered child abuse. This kid would have to grow up with this name and be teased big time. 

I agree that there needs to people need to be taught about properly naming their children. However, we are living in an age where people having babies have the IQ of a peanut. I actually applaud the judge's decision as this can be a precedent and hopefully teach other would be parents about how to name your child. 

August 19, 2013 4:44 AM

Messiah also occurs as a surname, a famous bearer is the french physicist Albert Messiah who wrote a standard course book on quantum mechanics. There are also two french architects named Aaron and Gaston Messiah (father and son).

However, the Messiah spike in the USA is not caused by nerds, but by fans of the rapper T.I. And yes, it is popular (in terms of today's popularity).



By mk
August 22, 2013 11:07 PM

The judge stepped over the line. She had no authority to change the first name. I hope the parents appeal and win.

A  compromise to the surname issue would have been to hyphenate the surname, something many parents already do. Or place one of them as a middle name.

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