As a 1st Amendment matter, it’s an easy call. A judge in Tennessee was engaging in a forbidden “establishment of religion” when she refused to allow a couple to name their baby Messiah.
“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,” Magistrate Lu Ann Ballew told the parents of the 7-month-old boy. The judge came up with a non-messianic alternative: “Martin DeShawn McCullough.”
The only reason the judge was involved at all was that the parents couldn’t agree on Messiah’s last name. But in rejecting the first name, Ballew acted not as a mediator but as an enforcer of Christian theology. The judge may believe that Jesus is the only Messiah, but others may disagree. As an ACLU official rightly put it, the judge “does not have the right to impose that faith on others.”
Still, even if an appeals court reverses this decision, little Messiah will be in for a lot of teasing that Martin wouldn’t have had to endure. Which raises the question of whether the state could ever override a parents’ choice of baby names.
Maybe in France, where a law was passed in 1803 requiring children to be named for “persons known to ancient history” or “names used in various calendars” (such as the Roman Catholic calendar of saints). But not in this country.
Establishment of religion aside, the Constitution probably empowers an American couple to name their kids anything they want, including Messiah or Seven, the name George Costanza coveted for his hypothetical offspring.
The obvious peg for such a right is the 1st Amendment’s guarantee of free speech. But Messiah’s parents might also want to cite a landmark Supreme Court decision holding that parents have an unenumerated right to raise their children as they see fit.
In the 1925 case of Pierce vs. Society of Sisters, the Supreme Court said: “The child is not the mere creature of the state; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations” -- including redeeming the world.
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