Ed already hit this in the Greenroom but it deserves front-page treatment, just because the judge makes no pretense — surprisingly — of her motive. She’s a Christian and therefore the title of “Messiah” is reserved for just one person, which means Christianity is effectively part of the law in Cocke County Chancery Court. That’s a slam-dunk Establishment Clause violation. Either she doesn’t know that or she doesn’t care and was looking to make a point, even if that means it’ll be overturned on appeal. (Spoiler: It will be.)
The second reason is almost as bad:
According to Judge Ballew, it is the first time she has ordered a first name change. She said the decision is best for the child, especially while growing up in a county with a large Christian population.
“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.
That reminds me of the “fighting words” exception to the First Amendment. If something you say is judged likely to so offend someone as to start a fight, you can, in theory, be arrested for saying it. It’s a heckler’s veto. The judge is essentially extending that concept here to family court. If the community would be offended by your kid’s name, then the community — via the judge, acting supposedly in the best interest of the child — gets to veto mom’s and dad’s choice. As Eugene Volokh noted at the last link, you can understand that logic in a case where, say, the parent wanted to name the child something profane, but to trump a parent’s rights, the example would need to be extreme. Is “Messiah,” a name that’s currently the fourth fastest-rising on the list of most popular names for babies, extreme? Besides, even if the example were extreme, language is mostly beyond the reach of the law. If dad wants to name his son “Douche” and a judge orders it changed to “Douglas,” how long will “Douglas” stick once dad stands up in front of his classmates on the first day of kindergarten and says, “I’d like you to meet my son Douche”? The kid’s ruined until he’s 18, whatever his birth certificate says.
Small silver lining to this precedent, though: If it sticks, “Barack” will soon be off-limits in Democratic districts. Exit question: Wait — “Messiah” is the fourth fastest-rising name for babies?