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Joe Heller l Green Bay Press Gazette

The game of the name

How much freedom do parents get?

Messiah (Martin?)

– A magistrate judge in Newport, Tenn., made national headlines when she took it upon herself to rename a 7-month-old baby, whose parents appeared before her 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 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.

Here in the USA, there are no official lists of approved names, and parents aren’t tossed into jail for running afoul of a naming law or even for naming their kid something epically stupid. However, state laws do govern what a baby can be named.

In a 2011 study of the law of parental naming rights in the United States, University of California-Davis law professor Carlton F.W. Larson found that under New Jersey law, parents have almost complete freedom to name their children as they see fit, although the “State Registrar may reject a name that contains an obscenity, numerals, symbols or a combination of letters, numerals or symbols, or a name that is illegible.” This study came after a New Jersey father attracted masses of unwanted media attention in 2008 when he got into a fight with a local grocery store that refused to frost the birthday cake for his then-3-year-old son, Adolf Hitler Campbell. (Heath Campbell, the Nazi father, lost custody for several other reasons, and not because his son was named “Adolf Hitler Campbell” and his daughters were named “JoyceLynn Aryan Nation Campbell” and “Honszlynn Hinler Jeannie Campbell.”)

But as Larson goes on to show, some states, including California, do restrict baby names, quite dramatically. California’s Office of Vital Records permits only “the 26 alphabetical characters of the English language with appropriate punctuation if necessary” barring “pictographs, ideograms, (or) diacritical marks.” Several states either administratively or statutorily ban ideograms or pictograms as names. And yes, as Larson notes, that means the symbol denoting the Artist Formerly Known as Prince would be out in some jurisdictions. Tennessee, where baby Messiah faces a name-ectomy, is one of several states that has little to say about an infant’s first name and a good deal to say about a baby’s surname, and where there’s no reason to believe judges can spontaneously change names based on religious conviction.

Larson’s legal question is a simple one: To what extent should state law constitutionally regulate the names that American parents may give their children?

He argues that the right to name one’s child is doubtless a fundamental one implicit in the cases recognizing parental rights over their children’s upbringing, and also expressive activity protected under the First Amendment. But he goes on to suggest that U.S. law can accommodate a legal regime under which the most horrifying names might be limited under some circumstances.

Indeed Larson’s law review article provides a breathtaking taxonomy of brutalizing American baby names across history, ranging from the Puritans’ delectable “Fear-Not” to the more recent “Ghoul Nipple.” One governor of South Carolina named his son “States Rights.” (He died.) The baby called “Loyal Lodge No. 296 Knights of Pythias Ponca City Oklahoma Territory” must have been extremely hard to call in to dinner. Modern hideous American baby names on record include “Toilet Queen,” “Leper,” “Loser,” “Fat Meat,” “Cash Whoredom,” “Tiny Hooker,” “Giant Pervis,” and “Acne Fountain.” “Demon,” “Satan” and “Hell” are not at all uncommon.

Putting aside Judge Ballew’s wildly inappropriate religious rationale for demanding that baby Messiah be renamed, there is nevertheless a legitimate question about whether Americans are too speech- and parental rights-protective when it comes to truly abusive baby names. At least in some cases – Adolf Hitler Campbell and his sisters being prominent examples – might it not be in the state’s interest to step in and afford a defenseless baby a fighting chance to not someday be beat up on the playground? Larson cites numerous studies concluding that people with unusual first names show “more severe personality disturbance than those with common names” and reporting that having a weird first name correlates to higher instances of delinquency in youth.

Is there some role for American courts to play in policing the very worst baby names? 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 well being 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 Ballew was claiming she was doing when she changed “Messiah” to “Martin,” explaining that “it could put him at odds with a lot of people.”

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

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