On Aug. 8, a mother in Newport, Tenn. — about 50 miles east of Knoxville — went before a local judge to settle a dispute over the last name of her son, Messiah DeShawn Martin, as part of a custody support fight with Messiah's father. The father wanted the boy to have his last name, McCullough, while the mother, Jaleesa Martin, didn't.
Child Support Magistrate Lu Ann Ballew sided with the father, but then went a step further: The parents, Ballew ruled, have to legally change the 7-month-old's name to Martin DeShawn McCullough. "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," Judge Ballew told local TV station WBIR.
Ballew explained that the name change is for the child's own good. In a heavily Christian area like Cocke County, she told WBIR-TV, the name Messiah "could put him at odds with a lot of people and at this point he has had no choice in what his name is."
Martin is appealing the decision. She likes the name Messiah — and "m" names in general: Her other two children are named Micah and Mason. She says she'll continue to call him Messiah regardless of what the courts order. "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," she told WBIR-TV.
Legally, Martin is right, says Dana Pretzer at Scared Monkeys. "I think it is poor form and sacrilege for the family to have named their child 'Messiah,'" he adds, but "there is no way in Heaven that a judge could be allowed to make this family change the child's name because of her religious views." What if the child's last name was Christ and they named him Jesus? "What ever happened to the First Amendment of the Constitution, of Freedom of Speech and Religion?"
It will be shocking if Judge Ballew's decision isn't overturned. Her heart may be in the right place, but even if Tennessee law somehow lets family court judges change children's names against the will of the parents, the religious overtones and publicity will all but guarantee that Martin gets pro bono legal help to take this fight as far as she wants.
None of that means people in Martin's camp love the name Messiah. Unlike most other unconventional names out there, Messiah carries some pretty hefty expectations. While Christians call Jesus the Messiah, "Judaism uses the term to mean an anticipated savior of the Jews," says Jonathan Kaminsky at Reuters. And "dictionary definitions say the word can mean one who is seen as, expected or professes to be a savior or liberator."
Jaleesa Martin says she like the name because it is unique, but there's almost no such thing as unique in baby naming these days. In 2012, 762 other Messiahs were born in the U.S., making it the 387th most popular name for U.S. boys in the U.S., according to the Social Security Administration. And because only 368 Messiahs were born in the U.S. in 2011, it's also the fourth-fastest-growing boys' name in America.