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Making Tennessee safe for “Messiah”s

According to The Leaf Chronicle, the magistrate “who ordered a baby’s name changed from Messiah to Martin because she believes Messiah is a title held only by Jesus Christ” has been removed from office by the district’s chief judge. (Magistrates apparently serve at the pleasure of the chief judges.) Here’s my post about the original incident:

Judge Orders That Child’s Name Be Changed from “Messiah”

So reports The Tennesseean; the parents came before the court because of a dispute over what the child’s last name should be, but the judge changed the child’s first name as well, giving two reasons:

“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,” Judge Ballew said….

According to Judge Ballew, it is the first time she has ordered a first name change. She said the decision is best for the child, especially while growing up in a county with a large Christian population.

“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,” Judge Ballew said.

The first reason strikes me as clearly unconstitutional under the Establishment Clause. A judge may not reject parents’ decisions based on her view of the messianic status of Jesus — that is a theological question that cannot be used as the basis of government decisionmaking about people’s rights. This principle most often arises in church property disputes, where the Supreme Court has held that courts may not decide which faction in a church is the more religiously orthodox, but it also applies more broadly to prohibit the government from adjudicating people’s rights based on theological judgments (see, e.g., United States v. Ballard). But beyond this constitutional question, I quite doubt that Tennessee law authorizes judges to make decisions based on their theological judgments.

The second reason is theoretically more defensible; some courts have indeed barred adults from officially adopting names that seem likely to cause fights (see, e.g., this article, and in particular the Misteri Nigger case plus possibly the Fuck Censorship! case, both cited by the article). Whether the same rule should apply to parents’ choice of their children’s name is an interesting policy question, an interesting statutory question (I don’t know what Tennessee statutes might authorize a judge to change a child’s name without the parents’ request), and an interesting constitutional parental rights question, which to my knowledge has been unlitigated in the U.S.

But it seems to me that, whatever the rule might be as to names that really are likely to cause fights or even serious problems for children, it’s hard to see this happening as to Messiah. My sense is that the many people named Jesus have relatively little social problems as a result, and while there is safety in numbers, Jesus was the 101st most popular name for infant boys in America in 2012, while Messiah rose to #387 — a nontrivial difference, but not so vast as to suggest that Messiahs will suffer badly. Whatever the standard might be for a judge ordering a name change to protect a child (setting aside the impermissible factor of the judge’s theological views), I doubt that it has been reached in this case.

The decision has been appealed, and I expect that it will be overturned on appeal.

The magistrate’s decision was indeed overturned on appeal some months ago, and disciplinary charges were filed against the judge. Thanks to Bob Bell for the update.

Eugene Volokh teaches free speech law, religious freedom law, church-state relations law, a First Amendment Amicus Brief Clinic, and tort law, at UCLA School of Law, where he has also often taught copyright law, criminal law, and a seminar on firearms regulation policy.

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