Sometimes A Judge Has To Tell People What To Do

In The News: Tennessee Judge Orders Baby’s Name Changed From ‘Messiah’ (WBIR, Channel 10 News, Knoxville, Tenn.)

In principle, I’m against government interference in our daily lives and decisions, our assumed right to live according to our own customs and beliefs. But all our rights only extend until they begin interfering with other people’s rights. In an increasing number of cases where people act inconsiderately, I’m in favor of the government telling them what to do¹.

In this case (see story above), a child’s parents had an argument over the last name, but had (apparently) agreed that his first name should be “Messiah”. When they brought their last-name argument before Judge Lu Ann Ballew, the judge noticed the first name and ordered it changed. “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,” Judge Ballew said.

Ignoring for a moment the inaccuracy of the above statement (the Hebrew word for “messiah” actually just means anointed and is used in the Bible to refer to a variety of objects and people, not just Christ — which comes from the Greek word for anointed), that part — to me — isn’t relevant to the case. What IS relevant is the judge’s other statement: she said that growing up in a county with a large Christian population might cause problems for a child named “Messiah”. “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,” Judge Ballew said.

Which brings up the larger issue of poor decisions in naming children.

Due to custom, our surnames are pretty much set in stone when we’re born — I’m pretty sure there’s no law in the U.S. requiring a baby to have its parents’ last name² — though we can always choose to change it later, as many women do when marrying. So having “Fry” (for example) as a last name may not always be easy, but it’s going to happen.

It’s the first and middle names that parents come up with which can be so vexing for children. Other kids (and other adults, to be honest) aren’t always nice and understanding. They’ll look at a kid’s initials to see if it spells a word or is similar to another abbreviation. They’ll try to rhyme one of the names with something (Molly rhymes with jolly, for example). I remember my own elementary school years, during which a boy with the initials B.M. was called “bowel movement” for several days until the other children tired of it, and Patty was called “Fatty Patty” for a while.

A friend of mine wanted to name her girl “Ember”, and so the initials would have been E.H. (“eh?”) Fortunately, she didn’t have a girl, but had two sons.

(I’m aware of potential hazards with my own offspring’s initials, though we carefully avoided the worst of them.)

Most of these harassments from other children are short-lived and mostly in fun as they develop language skills and the ability to notice and/or create puns.

But “Messiah” would be in an entirely different class of name, as the judge rightly noted. How long would it have been before the child (and the parents) grew tired of the same questions repeatedly, and possibly even hostility from their community? The mother claims she “never intended on naming my son Messiah because it means God”, saying that instead she just thought it sounded nice next to her other children’s names.

I’m all for unique and unusual names (see some examples); that’s not the issue here. It’s that you have to think of your child and what they’ll go through. The Johnny Cash song “A Boy Named Sue” comes to mind.

This is something that the parents should have decided for themselves and saved the court’s time and effort.
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¹ But not judges. Judges can certainly interpret the law and are often required to when there’s a disagreement as to its meaning. Judges determine guilt or innocence in non-jury trials, and make sure proper court procedures are followed. But, to my knowledge, judges aren’t supposed to introduce new rules or restrictions where the law doesn’t ask for it.

² “Because of a spate of court cases since the 1970s, no law in the United States now requires a child’s birth certificate to bear the father’s last name. Parents are free to devise any name they wish for their children.” — Whose Surname(s) for Baby?, New York Times, 1987.

“A child is not required to have the last name of the father, or of either parent… The parents may select a hyphenated name or an entirely unrelated name.” — Unmarried Parents, Encyclopedia of Everyday Law, 2003.

4 Comments
  1. Okay, let’s rock:

    1: Lu Ann Ballew is a hillbilly name if I ever heard one. Maybe her parents should have thought of that.
    2. Ballew’s statement 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” is both factually ludicrous and intellectually insulting to a free society.
    3. It’s none of Ballew’s business, or the court’s business, to decide who deserves to be called Messiah. It is also none of the court’s business to decide who was the actual Messiah.
    4. It was actually kind of a dumb idea to call a kid Messiah.

    List of possible baby names:

    -Onus
    -Diazapam
    -Eliminator
    -Bones
    -Eucalyptee
    -Phenning
    -Sprite
    -Elvis
    -Vulpecula
    -USS Enterprise
    -Oops
    -Madre de Dios
    -Outta My Yahweh
    -Legume
    -Hummus
    -Humus
    -Velvet
    -Ponch
    -Olfactory
    -Hairgetta
    -Erata
    -Bulgary
    -Theory
    -Don Quixote
    -Saki
    -Triumvirate
    -Troika
    -Knife
    -Snake
    -Like
    -Bella Oxmix
    -Prole
    -Tool of the Plutocracy
    -Irimi Nagi
    -Delicate Sound of Thunder
    -Panty
    -Enraptured
    -Buick
    -Uke
    -God David
    -Spent
    -Sublime
    -Consequence
    -Orthodoxia
    -Tranya
    -Answer the Phone, Bitch!

  2. Wil C. Fry says:

    Great suggestions. Some of them would be better depending on the surname. For example, “Panty” is funny, but would be funnier if the last name was Dropper or Wetz. Hummus would be funnier if the last name was “Atune”. And so on.

    My post above was slightly tongue-in-cheek, but to what extent to parents get to punish their newborns with names that will make their lives more difficult before the court steps in?

  3. I asked around. Angel, Christian, and Jesus don’t have a problem with naming a kid Messiah.

  4. Wil C. Fry says:

    Nicely done.

    Note: In reality, I agree with the ACLU on this one (story): “A parent has the right to choose their child’s name. In this case, the judge is creating a culture where she is imposing her religious beliefs on others. And that is unacceptable.”

    According to the Social Security Administration (here), Messiah was the 387th most popular male baby name in America in 2012, with more than 700 babies getting that name. Christopher (“bearer of Christ”) is 23rd, Christian is 33rd, Angel is 57th, Jesus is 101st.

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