An article in the Nov. 12 Metro section reported that the D.C. Council approved a measure permitting parents to give their newborn children any surname. But the article did not report that the council later reconsidered the bill and instead approved a proposal that would require parents to give their children either the mother's or father's surname. A related article appears on Page B3 of today's Metro section. (Published 11/13/02)
District parents have always had the freedom to give their child any first name they desire. Now, thanks to new legislation from the D.C. Council, they'll enjoy that same privilege for the child's surname.
"You mean I can name my child Barry Bonds Jr.?" council member Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5), who voted against the measure, asked incredulously.
The legislation, which was passed 7 to 6 during a council meeting Thursday, comes in reaction to a high-profile case last spring.
An Arlington couple whose son was born at Sibley Memorial Hospital in the District sued the city when they discovered that a city directive required married couples to give their children the father's surname.
That directive was issued by the Department of Health in May 2000, at the order of Urbane Bass III, the city's chief of Vital Records. Some people argued that the order was a violation of women's constitutional rights.
In May, the city government issued an emergency resolution, effective for 120 days, that allowed married couples to use the mother's surname. But the newest legislation goes further, allowing the use of any surname.
Some council members, including Orange, argued that while they supported allowing parents to use either parent's surname, allowing any surname would make it easier for parents to disown their children or commit identity fraud.
For example, they said, a mother could name a child after a man who is not the baby's father in hopes of winning child support payments or embarrassing the man.
"In my opinion, this opens us up to fraud," Orange said. "Parents should stand by their kid."
Council member Sandy Allen (D-Ward 8), who voted against the final measure, said that children already have the option of using any surname when they reach 18 and can legally change their names in the courts.
Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D), who voted against the final measure, said that "the whole purpose of a surname is to show a family connection. Parents could disown their kid by naming him a completely different name."
But supporters of the final legislation argued that governments should not be in the business of mandating people's names.
"I'm not convinced that the state's interests are so compelling as to overreach the parents' interest to name their child whatever they want," said council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1).
Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3) said she supports the liberal legislation because she has heard from a student at American University who wanted to give her child a surname derived from a combination of the mother's and father's names.
The emergency resolution issued in the spring would have allowed a hyphenated surname using both parents' names but not a newly formed combination name, Patterson said.
In addition to Graham and Patterson, council members who supported the measure were: Sharon Ambrose (D-Ward 6), David A. Catania (R-At Large), Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), Adrian M. Fenty (D-Ward 4) and Phil Mendelson (D-At Large).
The six other council members voted against the final measure, although they all agreed that married couples should have the option to use the mother's surname.
As the debate dragged on, Patterson invoked a famous name in an effort to expedite a resolution.
"If this goes on much longer, I'm going to sing 'John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt,' " she said.