Tenn. judge cited for nixing Messiah (October 23, 2013)

On Aug. 14, FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote to Timothy R. Discenza, disciplinary counsel for the Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct in Nashville, to lodge a formal complaint about Lu Ann Ballew, a child support magistrate. Ballew had presided over a child support hearing Aug. 8 in Cocke County Chancery Court in Newport to settle a dispute over a 7-month-old’s last name.

At the hearing’s end, Ballew ordered the boy’s name changed from Messiah DeShawn Martin to Martin DeShawn McCullough. According to an interview with WBIR-TV in Knoxville, she said said the name change was warranted because “[T]he 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.”

Ballew further said that a child named Messiah would have a hard time 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.”

In FFRF’s complaint, Markert noted that such conduct “send a clear message to nonbelievers and those who practice minority religions that [Ballew] is not neutral and that she will abuse her position to advance her own Christian views. Ms. Jaleesa Martin, the child’s mother, stated ‘I was shocked. I never intended on naming my son Messiah because it means God, and I didn’t think a judge could make me change my baby’s name because of her religious beliefs.’”

The parents appealed and another judge ruled in September that Ballew’s ruling was unconstitutional. The parents continue to call their son Messiah DeShawn McCullough. Messiah’s siblings are named Micah and Mason.
On Oct. 23, a three-member investigative panel of the judicial board concluded there was “reasonable cause to believe [Ballew] has committed judicial offenses” and ordered the board’s disciplinary counsel to file charges, Reuters reported.

The panel cited a clause of the judicial code that says religion and other personal biases must not play a role in rulings. Ballew has 30 days to file a response.

Messiah was the 387th most popular name for boys born in the U.S. in 2012, according to the Social Security Administration. There were 762 applications for boys named Messiah in 2012. In 2011, there were 368 Messiah requests.

Freedom From Religion Foundation