Sunday, September 8, 2013

What's In a Name?: Baby "Messiah" Sparks Controversy in Tennessee


In this recent Tennessee case, child support Magistrate Lu Ann Ballew of the 4th Judicial District ruled that a baby boy’s name could not be Messiah, and ordered the baby’s name to be changed to Martin.

What started as a petition to change the child’s last name (a common appeal in family court) turned into much more significant case, raising important questions about religious freedom. The judge is quoted explaining her decision based on the argument that “it could put him at odds with a lot of people and at this point he has had no choice in what his name is…the word Messiah is a title and it’s a title that has only been earned by one person and that person is Jesus Christ.” This is a fairly weak reason that stands little chance of being upheld if the child’s family chooses to appeal the decision, and the ACLU has already offered to appeal the ruling on behalf of the baby’s mother. The New York Times author of the article, Mark Oppenheimer argued that the magistrate might have had more standing had she appealed to the potential infringement on others’ religious liberty ie: those who did not want to call this child the Messiah, but instead Ballew invoked her own religious beliefs in the ruling. According to the article, the baby’s mother, Jalessa Martin, claims she never intended to name her son Messiah because it means God, and that she didn’t think a judge could make her change her child’s name because of the judge’s religious beliefs. Ms. Martin was in all likelihood correct—the ACLU-Tennessee executive director sees this case as an “unnecessary breach of a parents’ right to name their child what they please…while a judge has a right to her religious beliefs, she cannot impose her faith on those who appear in the courtroom.”


The case of baby Messiah/Martin is likely to be overturned as a violation of the First Amendment. It’s true that states can put various restrictions on naming rights, including length and punctuation, but restrictions based on an appeal to religion are clearly problematic. Tennessee law states that the court must find that the requested name change does not harm anyone else, so the question becomes, in what way is the name Messiah harming anyone? The legality of names has recently developed into a controversial topic across the country, and in order to understand the Tennessee case it might be useful to examine some other naming cases.
              
Last year, a New York judge ruled against a family petitioning to change their surname to ChristIsKing. The judge denied the family’s request on the ground that “allowing certain names could infringe on the religious liberties of others…[such as] a court employee forced to call out a name with a religious message.” In New Jersey, a judge took custody of four children whose parents named them after prominent Nazi figures, with names like Adolf Hitler Campbell, JoyceLynn Aryan Nation Campbell, and Honszlynn Hinler Campbell. The Campbell’s first made headlines when a bakery refused to write “Happy Birthday Adolf Hilter” on a cake. These cases about names raise important questions about the rights of parents to name their child, the impact of names on other’s religious freedom, and ultimately, staking an interest in the well-being of minors whose contentious names could possibly have lasting influence as they grow up and enter school, the workforce, etc.

Yet, despite the cases in which judges have been opposed to religiously charged names, according to the article, the name Messiah was given to 762 baby boys in 2012—and the Tennessee decision would plausibly affect all of those children as well. And one might wonder about the name Jesus, a name popular among Americans of Hispanic decent. The New York Times article is also quick to point out that “Hebrew-derived names are particularly popular among Latinos who have become Pentecostal Protestants,” and names like Adonai and Elohim have been increasingly given to babies in recent years.

            The Tennessee magistrate overstepped her bounds both legally and religiously. Jaleesa Martin brought the case to the court in order to change the child’s last name, and she left with an order to change the child’s first name. It is unlikely that Ballew’s decision will be upheld on these grounds alone—the court cannot raise issues on its own, if it has not been brought before them.

            There are also serious religious liberty issues at stake. There are valid competing claims of religious freedom—for Ballew, her concern (akin to the ruling against the “ChristIsKing” family) is for the public, and any person forced to call this person Messiah. And for the baby’s family, the issue is seen as their right to name the boy what they please, arguing it had no underlying religious connotation, and they should deserve the same freedom as the parents of 3,758 baby Jesus’s born in 2012.

            The judge’s opinion that Messiah, as a title, has only been earned by one person (Christ) is extremely troubling. That is clearly a statement rooted in Ballew’s religious beliefs, and does not reflect the intent of the family. The Tennessee case of baby Messiah/Martin is dealing with a more mainstream name, rather than a name with more overtly proselytizing intent, like ChristIsKing. Nevertheless, the lines aren’t clear where one person’s freedom to name their child Messiah stops being harmless and starts infringing upon someone else’s Christian beliefs. If naming the child Messiah, shows a “lack of respect for Christian people” as Norman Smith, chairman of the legislative body for Cocke County, Tennessee, told ABCNews, then what is to say that names like Jesus, or even Mary, are not offensive, too? Further, if the judge had said it would be unfair to make a teacher call a child Messiah (which is likely to happen when he enters school) would that be okay constitutionally? If the decision is upheld it will set a precedent that says the rights of a hypothetical person (any Christian who also believes Messiah is a title earned only by Christ) are more important than a parent’s right to name her child. But, what makes it worse, is that Ballew explicitly placed her own religious convictions at the forefront of the decision, a move that I think diminishes any legitimate argument she may have had.   

11 comments:

SC said...

The fact that this case even has a presence in any court leaves me speechless. For every other case that I read about for this class, I was able to understand why religious freedom might be at stake. I am having trouble doing so for this case. While it’s true that messiah can be and often is used as a title, it is also a simple noun that means, “One who is anticipated as, regarded as, or professes to be a savior or liberator”. I also find it quite puzzling that there is a case against a child named “messiah” while there have been no objections over naming someone Jesus, which has a larger Christian connotation than the word “messiah”. I will not begrudge anyone feeling uncomfortable about having to refer to someone as messiah, but I feel that not allowing someone to name his or her child after a word, whose meaning isn’t even exclusively to any particular religion, is not a reasonable request.

Cori T said...
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Cori T said...

If a name will not harm the child in the future, what business does a judge have ruling on it? The child might receive some errant comments in the future, but if people are naming their children things like ‘Apple’ and ‘Hashtag’ and thousands of Jesus’s are doing just fine today, then I would think that the child will live a life relatively free from mockery and other conflict. If someone feels that they cannot call the child Messiah due to his/her religious beliefs, then they could instead easily call the child by his middle or last name. While I do not believe anyone other than Christ should be called “Messiah,” I just do not see this as a pressing case.

Blair said...

I agree with Cori, it's ridiculous to have court rulings about names especially with the unlimited freedom people have claimed in naming their children things like 'Apple' etc. I don't understand why Messiah has caused so much disarray and Jesus has been legally accepted for a long time before this since the name Jesus holds much more value and specificity in the Christian faith. I would be shocked if the judge ruled against this family because there is no way that the name infringes on other people's religious beliefs. There are nicknames, middle names, and other names that people can call Messiah if they really feel that strongly about it and Cori and SC make great points in saying that this is ridiculous. If a judge believed that naming someone Moses would make someone who isnt Jewish feel uncomfortable when they refer to them, the case would be equally if not more ridiculous and would not make it very far. Names and religious freedoms and beliefs do not coincide or contradict each other in a manner that should be brought to court.

Benjamin S said...

I think my opinion falls in line with the rest of the comments currently on this thread. As long as the name will not cause obvious distress as the child ages, I see no problem. The court's ruling on the issue was rooted almost entirely in religious belief and that is where it errs. Should the child find his name offensive or burdensome in the future, he can easily file for a name change. Also I agree with Cori in that the child can easily be called by a middle or last name. I know many cases just like this, such as myself. Ultimately, I do not think the courts ever should have touched the issue. There is a "Messiah College". Is that somehow offensive? I think not.

Tyler J said...

I agree with many of the points raised throughout this post. I remember reading about this when it first occurred and was appalled that a judge should be allowed to change the child's first name because of her religious beliefs, especially when the mother was there only to change the last name. As Blair pointed out, there are many religious names that are commonly used within and outside of the various faiths they are related to. Many people are named Jacob, which also means Israel, which is a Jewish country. My point is similar to others: so many things have been repurposed as names these days that their meaning to one person is very different than to another. Furthermore, who can determine how a child's name will affect their future? As Benjamin and Cori said, a child can change their name if they so choose, or be called by a nickname or middle name.
On a religious level, only in Christianity is Jesus the messiah. In Judaism, the Messiah has not yet come, and so the Messianic Age, an age of peace, has not begun.
Overall, the court should have focused solely on changing the child’s last name, as was the original case.

Adam J said...

A child being given the name “Messiah” only means anything to people who attribute the name to only Jesus and take offense. Even in the Hebrew Bible a Messiah was a king or a high priest, whom didn’t have to be Hebrews including Cyrus the Great who was a King of Persia. A Tennessee court has no right to say that a person cannot be named “Messiah” is obviously an enforcement of ones religious beliefs on another person that should not be allowed.

Adam J said...
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Dan W said...

Seeing as every commenter on this post holds the same opinion, I'd like to shed light on the other. To a Christian, calling a human being "Messiah" is a contradiction to their religious beliefs where Jesus is the only true Messiah. To a non-Christian, the name could be offensive as whether it was intentional or not, the name invokes religion in a sphere where religion is not meant to be invoked. Though New York Knick Metta World Peace (formerly known as Ron Artest) may disagree, I believe the general public would prefer for naming of children to be free of advertising of one's beliefs, morals, and/or ideals. There are are plenty of acceptable names to give one's children and there is no reason to choose a name that is even the least bit controversial. When one says Messiah, they should not have to clarify that they mean Jesus of Nazareth instead of a colleague.

Yessica M said...

I agree with everything that has been said thus far. I think it is also important to note that the judge taking this case does not only use her own religious beliefs to make her decision but she has clearly violated her role as a judge and what they are obligated to do. Aren’t judges supposed to be impartial decision makers in the ‘pursuit of justice’? Aren’t they capable of interpreting the law and assessing any evidence that it presents in their courtrooms to make their decisions? I am pretty sure there is not a law prohibiting parents from naming their child after biblical or historical contexts. If that were the case, I am certain people would have a problem with all our names, each names descends from a particular background which most people might not fully agree with. I am very appalled as to what senses this judge came to believe that it was okay to incorporate personal beliefs in making a decision. I can’t help but think back to the ‘separation of church and state’ and how even though our legal systems portrays themselves to have such separation it does not exist. It has gotten to the point where even lower courts are questioned on their decision-making and the constitutionality behind their opinions.

Tyler J said...

http://religionclause.blogspot.com/2013/09/judge-reverses-magistratesays-child-can.html