The renaming of baby Messiah. At least it's not Acne Fountain

August 16, 2013 

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A magistrate judge in Newport, Tenn., made national headlines when she took it upon herself to rename a 7-month old baby, whose parents appeared before her at a child support hearing, to resolve a dispute over the child’s surname.

The baby’s given name was “Messiah DeShawn Martin.” Child Support Magistrate Lu Ann Ballew spontaneously changed it to “Martin DeShawn McCullough” (McCullough is the father’s name), explaining that although there was no dispute about the child’s first name, “The word Messiah is a title, and it’s a title that has only been earned by one person, and that one person is Jesus Christ.”

According to the Social Security Administration, “Messiah” was in the top 400 baby names for 2012. (Nearly 4,000 babies were named “Jesus”; about 500 were named “Mohammed”; and 29 were named “Christ.”) The ACLU, pointing out that the judge cannot impose her religious faith on others, has offered to assist the baby’s mother, Jaleesa Martin, in an appeal.

Ballew said that she was taking his Christian community into account and that the name “could put him at odds with a lot of people.” Her decision seems nutty and will no doubt be overturned, but it’s a reminder of how much freedom Americans truly enjoy.

In many Western democracies, it’s not unusual for a judge to weigh in on a baby’s name if there is reason to believe the child is at risk of bullying. In New Zealand, you can’t give your child a moniker that might cause offense to a “reasonable” person. “Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii” is perhaps the most famous name that’s been judicially blocked in New Zealand, but so were the rather charming “Fish” and “Chips” (for twins). (“Messiah” was also blocked in New Zealand, for whatever that’s worth.)

In Germany the child’s gender must be obvious by the first name, and the name selected cannot “negatively affect the wellbeing of the child.” Last names or the names of objects or products may not be used as first names in Germany. In Japan you must pick a baby name from one of several thousand accepted “name kanjis.” A judge in the Dominican Republic banned the name “Dear Pineapple” – which is probably for the best. Spain prohibits “extravagant” or “improper” names. French authorities may reject first names that are contrary to the welfare of the child.

Here in the USA, there are no official lists of approved names, and parents aren’t tossed into jail for running afoul of a naming law or even for naming a kid something epically stupid. Some states, however, do restrict baby names, quite dramatically as the San Francisco Chronicle’s Louis Freedberg learned when he tried to name his daughter “Luçia.” California’s Office of Vital Records permits only “the 26 alphabetical characters of the English language with appropriate punctuation if necessary.” Several states either administratively or statutorily ban ideograms or pictograms as names.

You can spell out numbers, but in New Jersey and Texas you can’t use numerical symbols, with the exception of Roman numerals. In Massachusetts, the first, last, and middle names can be no longer than 40 characters each. New Jersey and Nebraska ban obscenities.

University of California-Davis law professor Carlton F.W. Larson argues that the right to name one’s child is doubtless a fundamental one and also expressive activity protected under the First Amendment. But he suggests that U.S. law can accommodate a legal regime under which the most horrifying names might be limited.

Indeed, a law review article by Larson provides a breathtaking taxonomy of brutalizing American baby names across history, ranging from the Puritans’ delectable “Fear-Not” to the more recent “Ghoul Nipple.” One governor of South Carolina named his son “States Rights.” (He died.) The baby called “Loyal Lodge No. 296 Knights of Pythias Ponca City Oklahoma Territory” must have been extremely hard to call in to dinner. Modern hideous American baby names on record include “Toilet Queen,” “Leper,” “Loser,” “Fat Meat,” “Cash Whoredom,” “Tiny Hooker,” “Giant Pervis” and “Acne Fountain.” “Demon,” “Satan” and “Hell” are not at all uncommon.

Putting aside Judge Ballew’s inappropriate religious rationale for demanding that baby Messiah be renamed, there is a legitimate question about whether Americans are too protected when it comes to giving out truly abusive baby names. At least in some cases, might it not be in the state’s interest to step in and afford a defenseless baby a fighting chance not to someday be beat up? The New Zealand judge who ordered that Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii have her name changed memorably wrote that such a name “makes a fool of the child and sets her up with a social disability and handicap.” Larson cites numerous studies concluding that people with unusual first names show “more severe personality disturbance than those with common names” and reporting that having weird first names correlates to higher instances of delinquency in youth.

One legal scholar Larson cites has put forth statutory language providing that “Parents may give a child any given names on which they agree as long as the names do not defraud or otherwise operate to create injustice.” Which might leave “Adolf Hitler” or “Acne Fountain” as acceptable. Larson suggests language that would allow the state to reject a proposed name if “there is an overwhelming likelihood that the name will pose serious and lasting harm to the child’s emotional wellbeing and social development.”

It’s an intriguing place to start the discussion. But it’s also precisely what Ballew was claiming she was doing when she changed “Messiah” to “Martin,” explaining that “it could put him at odds with a lot of people.”

Washington Post News Service

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate.

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