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Tennessee judge oversteps in ordering name change for Baby Messiah

How perfectly welcome a judicial intervention might have been had Jaleesa Martin and her baby’s father decided to name their little boy Idiotface or Stupidhead.

Any responsible family court judge would have recognized the emotional abuse inherent in bestowing such a derogatory name upon a child.

But Messiah?

Dear God. You’ve got to be joking.

As my colleague Matt Pearce reported, 7-month-old Messiah Deshawn Martin, who lives in Newport, a small town in Eastern Tennessee, was the subject of a dispute between his parents over his last name, not his first name. The parents’ legal relationship is unclear from news reports.

The matter landed last week before Tennessee Child Support Magistrate Lu Ann Ballew, who had her own ideas about the little boy's name. She decided that Messiah was an inappropriate first name and ordered that Messiah's name be changed to Martin Deshawn McCullough, incorporating the last names of both parents.

“The word Messiah is a title and it’s a title that has only been earned by one person,” Ballew said in an interview with WBIR TV, “and that one person is Jesus Christ.”

It may be a “title” earned by only one person in her narrow Christianist view, but dozens, if not hundreds, of people have claimed to be the Messiah in the last 2,000 years.

Why would the magistrate take such a paternalistic stand? In an overwhelmingly Christian county, she claimed, she was merely looking out for the little boy’s welfare.

“It could put him at odds with a lot of people,” she said, “and at this point, he has had no choice in what his name is.”

UC Davis law professor Carlton F.W. Larson, a constitutional expert who wrote about laws governing baby names for the George Washington Law Review in 2011, said he’d never heard of a case like this one.

"You take a name, probably not a great one, but nothing harmful or terrible about it, and then say, ‘No, you can’t have that name. I am going to pick a new name for you?’ That’s outrageous," Larson said.

Ballew’s logic, he said, “totally violates basic freedom of religion.”

“This kid can’t be a Messiah because the Messiah is Jesus Christ? Judges don’t get to make pronouncements from the bench on who is the Messiah and who is not," Larson said. "They’re prohibited from that.”

Larson also wondered, because the judge is white and the mother is black, whether there is “a racial dimension” to the case. “You wonder if it were a white couple whether she would have felt as comfortable doing that,” he said.

I can’t help but wonder what the magistrate might have done had someone walked into the court with a daughter named Madonna.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee has announced it will help Jaleesa Martin with an appeal. The group’s executive director, Hedy Weinberg, told the Nashville Tennessean that Ballew’s religious beliefs are her business. “She does not have the right to impose that faith on others,” Weinberg said. “And that is what she did.”

Last May, in a story about popular U.S. baby names, the Associated Press noted that “King” and “Messiah” were among the “fastest rising” names for boys. “Major” was just below them.

Judge Ballew isn’t just exceeding her authority. She is wrong on the facts. There isn’t just one Messiah, there are hundreds of them, if not thousands, running around America.

To paraphrase the great Monty Python movie “Life of Brian,” none of them is The Messiah. They're just normal American kids with slightly unusual names. 

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More from Robin Abcarian

Twitter: @robinabcarian

robin.abcarian@latimes.com

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