A Tennessee court overturned a magistrate’s earlier order to change a newborn’s given name from “Messiah” to a more traditional name. The prior order was based on shaky legal grounds: “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 had reasoned. But titles have been accepted as legal names. In her highly-praised book, The Warmth of Other Suns, about The Great Migration of African-Americans from the South to the North and West in the 20th Century, Isabel Wilkerson noted that some southern African-Americans gave their sons military titles, in order to force whites to address them more respectfully (in word, if not by deed). In 1935, for instance, accounting for the names of all U.S. newborns—regardless of race or geographic region–“Major” was a more popular newborn name than “Jason,” “Andre,” “Justin,” or “Dominic.” The magistrate’s stated reasoning also clearly reflected an insertion of religious judgment that, aside from being unconstitutional, may have been farther from current mainstream sentiment than she may have thought–even in Christian circles. “Jesus” has been at or about one of the top 100 most popular boys names for nearly forty years, reflecting its cultural acceptance as an appropriate name–at least among Spanish-speaking populations. “Mary” was once rarely used in Celtic communities, due to its association with the mother of Jesus. In the U.S., however, it occupied the top spot for girls in all but six years between 1888 and 1961. Similarly, “Muhammad” (including its various alternative spellings) is reportedly the most popular first name in the world. But can a parent name their child anything? (“Hitler” “F*cker”?) If not, why not?
Although parents enjoy extremely broad autonomy in choosing their children’s legal names, that freedom has some boundaries, and those boundaries vary by state. Such restraints include the use of Arabic numbers, obscenities, symbols, and excessively lengthy names. Parental naming rights are protected by the First Amendment. So state restriction of those rights must pass a high level of scrutiny, if challenged. In instances where the health and welfare of the child is threatened, for instance, states’ obligations to protect its minor citizens have trumped parental custody rights. A few years ago, we learned that although New Jersey law permitted the Campbells to name their son, “Adolf Hitler Campbell,” the bakery shop was within its rights to refuse to write that name on his 3rd year birthday cake. Refusing to allow unusual names for the sake of protecting a child from future emotional abuse or hardship would seem difficult to justify, given parental constitutional rights. The Tennessee magistrate had also reasoned that given the predominance of Christians in Tennessee, naming the boy “Messiah” “could put him at odds with a lot of people.” The recently-famous newborn “Messiah” should be OK, though: in 2012, more babies were named “Messiah” in the U.S. than “Donald,” “Philip,” “Bruce,” and even “Gary.” // Michael Racette