Messiah no longer: What's in a name?

Messiah cannot be a first name in Tennessee, a judge ruled. The decision, which resulted in changing Messiah to Martin, churns up a mess of issues. 

AP Photo/Heidi Wigdahl
Messiah: Baby named 'Martin' after judge in eastern Tennessee said 'Messiah' reserved for Jesus.

Seven-month-old Messiah DeShawn McCullough emerged from court as Martin DeShawn McCullough, after Child Support Magistrate Lu Ann Ballew released her decision to the Cocke County Chancery Court in Tennessee.

Ballew, who was determining the child's last name after a dispute between the parents, ended up weighing in on the first name, too: "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," she said. 

Needless to say, the decision churns up a whole host of issues, including but not limited to ... 

1) The separation of church and state: Grant that, in this case, the state has authority to determine the last name of the child to resolve a dispute. But since when has citing one particular interpretation of Christian observance been a sound legal grounding for a decision of any sort, let along one as important as changing a child's legal first name? 

2) The state's role in protecting children from their own names: For that matter, when (if ever) is there a legitimate state interest in determining what names citizens choose for their children?

In the notorious case of Adolf Hitler Campbell, the child's name may have played into his and his siblings' removal from his parents' custody. There's no question that you're imposing a burden on your child by naming him or her after a notorious historical figure – the question is, at what point does that become a matter of legal concern? When, if ever, is it abusive or suggestive of abuse?

"Messiah" may be unconventional, but it has positive (if slightly melodramatic) connotations – and it's also a name that hundreds of other parents (700 last year, by a recent count of the Social Security Administration) have given to their kids without a problem.

All that said, if you think the United States government can be pushy about name selection, try naming your child in Iceland – if you try to stray from the approved register of Icelandic names, you come up against the Icelandic Naming Committee, which will rule whether your child's proposed name can be successfully integrated into the island nation's culture.

3) The way names help (or hurt) job applicants later in life: Studies have shown that resumes submitted under different names, with identical qualifications, get different results.

Studies like this one in Britain targeting ethnic bias or this American study looking at bias against names linked with African-Americans indicate that there's a lot to a name – it informs employers' snap judgments about applicants, which can make all the difference when a potential employer is sifting through dozens or hundreds of qualified job-seekers.

Martin may have an easier time landing a job than Messiah, but what makes that a court's place to decide, rather than the parents or, when the child turns 18, the child himself

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