A magistrate judge in Newport, Tenn., made national headlines this 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 although there was no dispute about the child’s first name before the court, “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 ACLU, pointing out that the judge cannot impose her religious faith on others, has offered to assist the baby’s mother, Jaleesa Martin, in an appeal of the judge’s order.
Ballew ordered that the baby’s birth certificate be changed because, as she explained, she was taking his Christian community into account and "I thought out into the future," and the name "could put him at odds with a lot of people." Her decision seems nutty on its face, and will no doubt 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 offence 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). ("Messiah" was also blocked in New Zealand, for whatever that’s worth.)
Sweden is also notorious for its strict baby naming laws, famously blocking the names "Metallica," "IKEA," and "Veranda," as well as "Brfxxccxxmnpcccclllmmnprxvclmnckssqlbb11116" (pronounced “Albin”). 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 preapproved by the government, with room to appeal for special circumstances. Ditto for Iceland, where a teen is suing the government to reinstate her name, which means, benignly, “Light Breeze.” In Germany the child’s gender must be immediately obvious by the first name, and the name selected cannot “negatively affect the wellbeing of the child.” Last names or the names of objects or products may not be used as first names in Germany. In Japan you must pick a baby name from one of several thousand accepted "name kanjis." And in China you may not name your child “@,” thus ending his fledgling Twitter career before it begins. A judge in the Dominican Republic banned the name "Dear Pineapple." Which is probably for the best. Spain prohibits “extravagant” or “improper” names. French authorities may reject first names that are contrary to the welfare of the child. In short, the notion that judges can intercede to change a baby’s name in order to protect her from bad consequences later in life may shock the heck out of Americans but it is remarkably common worldwide.
Here in the USA, there are no official lists of approved names, and parents aren’t tossed into jail for running afoul of a naming law or even for naming their kid something epically stupid. However, state laws do govern what a baby can be named. In a 2011 study of the law of parental naming rights in the United States, University of California–Davis law professor Carlton F.W. Larson found that under New Jersey law, parents have almost complete freedom to name their children as they see fit, although the “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.” This study came after a New Jersey father attracted masses of unwanted media attention in 2008 when he got into a fight with a local grocery store that refused to frost the birthday cake for his then-3-year-old son, Adolf Hitler Campbell. (Heath Campbell, the Nazi father, lost custody for several other reasons, and not because his son was named "Adolf Hitler Campbell" and his daughters were named "JoyceLynn Aryan Nation Campbell" and "Honszlynn Hinler Jeannie Campbell.")