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Baby Messiah case brings religious right, ACLU together

Perspective

A Tennessee judge's gall in ruling that a woman can't name her child Messiah is being condemned by those of all political stripes.

August 18, 2013|By Robin Abcarian
  • Seven-month-old Martin DeShawn McCullough is the subject of a baby-name controversy. A judge in Tennessee changed the child's first name from "Messiah," saying that would be offensive to Christians.
Seven-month-old Martin DeShawn McCullough is the subject of a baby-name… (Heidi Wigdahl / Associated…)

It's not very often that the ACLU gets love from the religious right, but after a Tennessee judge took it upon herself to rename a 7-month-old boy because she found his name offensive to Christians, the civil liberties group, which had strenuously objected, found some new friends.

"I got the classic call the other day," said Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee, who called the judge's action "totally unacceptable." "They said, 'I really don't like the ACLU, but I support what you are saying and doing about the baby Messiah."

You've undoubtedly heard about the baby Messiah.

This was the little boy whose mother, Jaleesa Martin, 22, took the father, Jawaan P. McCullough, 40, to family court to establish paternity and to set child support. The unmarried pair also had a quarrel about the boy's last name.

Although the father had wanted to name the baby Jawaan P. McCullough Jr., by the end of the Aug. 8 hearing, according to the judge, he no longer objected to calling the boy Messiah Deshawn. But he wanted the boy to bear his surname.

Nevertheless, the judge decided to give the baby a total name makeover.

"It is not in this child's best interest to keep the first name 'Messiah,'" Magistrate Lu Ann Ballew wrote in a breathtaking display of authoritarian gall. "'Messiah' means Savior, Deliverer, the One who will restore God's Kingdom. 'Messiah' is a title that is held by only Jesus Christ."

The name would impose an "undue burden on him that as a human being he cannot fulfill," she wrote. (Like, how would she know that?)

Furthermore, she noted, the boy's home of Cocke County, Tenn., has a "large Christian population" as evidenced by its "many churches of the Christian faith."

"Therefore," she concluded, "it is highly likely that he will offend many Cocke County citizens by calling himself 'Messiah.'"

I called around to a few Christian churches in Jaleesa Martin's town, Newport, Tenn., to see if I could find anyone who was offended by Messiah's name.

No one wanted to talk on the record. One pastor, who refused to let me name him, put it this way: "Nobody around here much cares for naming the kid Messiah, but a whole lot more are upset with the judge. That's gall. That's across the board."

A local TV reporter pointed out to Ballew that plenty of people are named Jesus. Ballew paused for a moment, then declared that information "not relevant to this case." Nor, presumably, is the widely reported statistic that "Messiah" is an increasingly popular American baby name. (Along with Lord and King. But I digress.)

With the sweep of her pen, Ballew has caused many to wonder: Can the government deprive parents of the right to name their children?

"Parents, not the government or anybody else, name children," wrote UC Davis constitutional law professor Carlton F.W. Larson in a law review article about the constitutional dimensions of baby-naming laws. "I am aware of no circumstances in American history, other than slavery, in which this right has been exercised by anyone other than parents."

In an interview, Larson called the judge's move "totally outrageous."

"Her entire line of reasoning totally violates basic freedom of religious purposes," Larson said. "This kid can't be a Messiah because the Messiah is Jesus Christ? Judges don't get to make pronouncements on the bench about who is the Messiah and who is not."

The ACLU's Weinberg agreed: "The judge is crossing the line by interfering in a very private decision and is imposing her own religious faith on this family. The courtroom is not a place for promoting personal religious beliefs, and that's exactly what the judge did when she changed the baby Messiah's name to Martin."

Larson suggested there could be what he called "a racial dimension" to the story, as the judge is white and the baby is black. "You wonder if she would have done that if it was a white couple," he said.

In his 2011 article for the George Washington Law Review, Larson wrote that baby-name law "is a legal universe that has scarcely been mapped, full of strange lacunae, spotty statutory provisions, and patchy, inconsistent case law."

For instance some states don't require names at all, some don't allow epithets or symbols or numerals or illegible combinations thereof. In Massachusetts, names must be composed of characters found on the "standard American keyboard." California once rejected a name that contained the N-word. New Mexico rejected a name that began with a common four-letter profanity followed by "Censorship."

Adolf Hitler Campbell, a New Jersey 3-year-old whose father made a stink when a bakery refused to write the boy's name on his birthday cake in 2008, had a perfectly legal moniker. (One of the boy's sisters was JoyceLynn Aryan Nation Campbell. Years later, the father made news again when his fourth wife became pregnant and the couple publicly discussed naming her Eva Braun.)

Although there is nothing illegal about naming a child for one of history's most despicable mass murderers, Larson wrote, when a San Francisco couple tried to name their baby girl Lucía, they were not able to put their preferred spelling on her birth certificate because California's Office of Vital Records bans diacritical marks.

When Larson tried to put his full name on his daughter's birth certificate, including his two middle names "Frederick William," a five-generation tradition in his Swedish family, he ran into an even lamer snag. He was told it was too long to fit.

"Prior to computers you could have done this with no problem at all," Larson said. "Now all of a sudden, my rights have shrunk because of your software?"

Next month, Jaleesa Martin will return to court to fight to restore Messiah's perfectly good name.

Lord willing, and a good attorney at her side, she will prevail.

robin.abcarian@latimes.com

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