Dahlia Lithwick: U.S. freedoms include naming your children

08/16/2013 12:00 AM

08/15/2013 5:02 PM

A magistrate judge in Newport, Tenn., made national headlines last weekend when she took it upon herself to rename a 7-month-old baby, whose parents appeared before her at a child support hearing, 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 “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 American Civil Liberties Union pointed out that the judge cannot impose her religious faith on others.

The judge’s decision seems nutty on its face and no doubt will 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. For starters, in New Zealand you can’t give your child a moniker that might cause offense to a “reasonable” person. “Talula Does the Hula From Hawaii” is perhaps the most famous name that’s been judicially blocked in New Zealand, but so were the rather charming “Fish” and “Chips” (for twins).

Sweden is also notorious for its strict baby-naming laws, blocking the names “Metallica,” “IKEA” and “Veranda.” In Norway they tossed a woman in jail for two days for naming her son “Gesher” (which means “Bridge” in Hebrew) after it appeared to her in a dream. In Denmark parents must select from one of 7,000 or so names approved by the government, with room to appeal for special circumstances. Ditto for Iceland.

In Germany, the child’s gender must be immediately obvious by the first name, and the name selected cannot “negatively affect the well-being of the child.” In Japan you must pick a baby name from one of several thousand accepted “name kanjis.” Spain prohibits “extravagant” or “improper” names.

Here in the USA, there are no official lists of approved names. However, state laws do govern what a baby can be named. In a 2011 study, University of California-Davis law professor Carlton F.W. Larson found that New Jersey’s 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.”

California’s Office of Vital Records permits only “the 26 alphabetical characters of the English language with appropriate punctuation if necessary.” Several states either administratively or statutorily ban ideograms or pictograms as names. In Massachusetts the first, last and middle names can be no longer than 40 characters each.

Putting aside the judge’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, might it not be in the state’s interest to step in and afford a defenseless baby a fighting chance to not someday be beaten up on the playground?

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