Tennessee child support magistrate Lu Ann Ballew unilaterally decided to rename a seven-month-old boy “Martin” because she objected to the parents’ selection of “Messiah.” Her reasoning, she explained, was that, “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.”
WBIR reported that Messiah’s mother and father could not agree on a last name for their child and brought the question to Cocke County Chancery Court on Thursday. But rather than just deciding on a last name, the judge also gave the child a new first name, renaming the infant Martin DeShawn McCullough.
Ballew claimed that the move was in the best interest of the child living in a heavily Christian county: “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.” Asked about her thoughts about the many children named “Jesus,” Ballew responded, “I thought about that, and that’s not relevant to this case.”
Jaleesa Martin, Messiah’s mother, is appealing the ruling. “I never intended on naming my son Messiah because it means God,” she told the TV station, “and I didn’t think a judge could make me change my baby’s name because of her religious beliefs.”
Martin is right. Although the scope of the constitutional ban on laws “respecting an establishment of religion” is likely to shrink soon due to conservative Supreme Court justices reluctant to enforce the separation of church and state, even conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy agrees that the coercive power of the state cannot be used to compel religious action. A government official ordering a family to take an action because it conflicts with the official’s religious belief certainly qualifies as a violation of the Constitution.
According to the Associated Press, “Messiah” was the fourth-fastest-rising baby name last year. The Social Security Administration’s database also shows that “Jesus” was the 101st-most-common name for a boy in 2012.
David Haines, general counsel for the Tennessee State Courts, told ThinkProgress that Ballew’s position as a Child Support Referee is appointed by the elected judges for the judicial district.