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Lithwick: Can you name your baby ‘Messiah’?

A magistrate judge in Newport, Tenn., made national headlines last weekend 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 before the court, “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 of the judge’s order.

Ballew ordered that the baby’s birth certificate be changed because, as she explained, she was taking his Christian community into account and “I thought out into the future,” and the name “could put him at odds with a lot of people.” Her decision seems nutty on its face, and will no doubt be overturned, but it’s a reminder of how much freedom Americans truly enjoy when it comes to naming their children.

In many Western democracies, it’s not at all 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 or abuse. For starters, 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.)

Sweden is also notorious for its strict baby naming laws, famously blocking the names “Metallica,” “IKEA,” and “Veranda,” as well as “Brfxxccxxmnpcccclllmmnprxvclmnckssqlbb11116” (pronounced “Albin”). In Norway they tossed a woman in jail for two days for naming her son “Gesher” (which means “Bridge” in Hebrew) after it appeared to her in a dream. In Denmark parents must select from one of 7,000 or so names preapproved by the government, with room to appeal for special circumstances. Ditto for Iceland, where a teen is suing the government to reinstate her name, which means, benignly, “Light Breeze.”

In Germany the child’s gender must be immediately obvious by the first name, and the name selected cannot “negatively affect the well-being 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.” And in China you may not name your child “@,” thus ending his fledgling Twitter career before it begins.

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. In short, the notion that judges can intercede to change a baby’s name to protect her from bad consequences later in life may shock the heck out of Americans but it is remarkably common worldwide.

Is there a role for American courts to play in policing the very worst baby names? One legal scholar 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. University of California-Davis law professor Carlton F.W. 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,” with the right to immediate review in a court. It’s an intriguing place to start the discussion.

But it’s also precisely what Judge Ballew was claiming she was doing when she changed “Messiah” to “Martin” last week, explaining that “it could put him at odds with a lot of people.”

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

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