FFRF seeks probe of Tennessee magistrate who ordered boy’s name changed

The Freedom From Religion Foundation wants an investigation and possible discipline for a Tennessee magistrate who showed religious favoritism by ordering a child’s legal first name to be changed because it apparently offended the judge’s Christian sensibilities.

According to FFRF’s complainants and news reports, Lu Ann Ballew, a child support magistrate for the Fourth Judicial District of Tennessee, presided over a child support hearing Aug. 8 in Cocke County Chancery Court. The hearing was being held to settle a dispute over a 7-month-old’s last name.

At the hearing’s conclusion, Ballew ordered the boy’s name changed from Messiah DeShawn Martin to Martin DeShawn McCullough. According to a published interview she gave to WBIR-TV in Knoxville, 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.”

FFRF Senior Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert wrote a letter of complaint Aug. 14 to Timothy R. Discenza, disciplinary counsel for the Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct in Nashville.

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.’ “

Martin, who told reporters she will appeal, said she likes how Messiah sounds alongside her son’s two siblings, Micah and Mason.

FFRF asserted the magistrate violated Canons 1 and 2 of the Tennessee Code of Judicial Conduct through her actions. “Her statements regarding her decision to change the child’s name imposed her own personal religious beliefs upon parties coming before her thus calling into question her ability to conduct herself in a manner that ‘promotes public confidence in the independence and impartiality of the judiciary.’ “

Markert added that Ballew has “shown a lack of respect and compliance with the law by using her position as a child support magistrate to endorse a Christian viewpoint in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.”

FFRF requested an investigation to determine to what extent Ballew may have violated the Code of Judicial Conduct and that proper sanctions be issued to prevent future misconduct if violations are deemed to have occurred.

Messiah ranked fourth among the fastest-rising baby names in 2012, according to the Social Security Administration’s annual list of popular baby names.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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