After a Tennessee magistrate stirred up a firestorm of criticism last month for ordering Tennessee parents to change their son’s name from “Messiah” to “Martin” because, in the eyes of the magistrate, the only true “Messiah” is Jesus Christ. Well, an appellate judge stepped in yesterday and ruled that the 8-month-old baby can be named Messiah after all.
At an appeal hearing in Cocke County Chancery Court on Wednesday, Chancellor Telford E. Forgety overturned the decision by Child Support Magistrate Lu Ann Ballew, ruling that she acted unconstitutionally.
Forgety said when both parents agree on a child’s name, there is no basis in the law for changing it. Forgety said Ballew’s decision violates the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution and ordered the child’s name to be changed to Messiah Deshawn McCullough.
After the hearing, the boy’s mother, Jaleesa Martin, called Ballew’s original ruling “ridiculous” and said she was confident it would be overturned—so confident that she never stopped calling the baby “Messiah,” which she chose because she liked the way it sounded with the names of her other two sons, Micah and Maison.
Martin and the baby’s father, Jawaan McCullough, were in the courtroom along with several family members, including Martin’s mother, who wore a T-shirt with the names of the three boys printed on the back next to tiny footprints.
The controversy grew out of a child support hearing in Cocke County, Tenn., that was held because the child’s mother and father were unable to agree on a last name for their 7-month-old son.
But when Magistrate Ballew discovered that the child’s first name was Messiah, she sprang into action, ordering the parents to change the name to Martin. His old name was Messiah DeShawn Martin. His new name became Martin DeShawn McCullough.
“The word Messiah is a title that has only been earned by one person, and that one person is Jesus Christ,” Ballew told WBIR-TV.
Ballew said she made her decision in the child’s best interests because “Messiah” would not bode well among the community’s 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,” said Ballew.
Ballew’s decision quickly made international news and prompted the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation to file a complaint against Ballew with the state’s Board of Judicial Conduct, which hasn’t yet made a ruling.
“Everybody’s just happy,” Martin said after the ruling. “I’m glad it’s over with, and I know they are too.”
Kristi Davis, Martin’s attorney, said after the hearing that she was not surprised by the public interest in the case, saying it was “a reflection of the fact that we, as Americans, care about our civil liberties.”
“I think it’s truly a recognition by the citizens of our country that when a judge oversteps his or her bounds and infringes on the constitutional rights of the people that come in front of them, it’s something that we don’t like, and it’s something that we pay attention to,” she said.
Messiah is actually the fourth highest-rising name in popularity rankings, according to the Social Security Administration, which said more than 700 babies were named Messiah in the U.S. last year. The fastest-rising names between 2011 and 2012 for males were Major, Gael and Jase.
It should be noted that rapper T.I., who appears with his family on the popular show, “T.I. & Tiny: The Family Hustle,” has a son named Messiah and one named Major.