Do The Courts Have A Right To Name Your Baby?

A Tennessee judge ordered a couple to change their 7-month-old son's name from "Messiah" to "Martin," ruling that, "Messiah' is a title that is held only by Jesus Christ." Weekends on All Things Considered guest host Don Gonyea talks with Slate.com's Dahlia Lithwick about what parents can do and when courts can intervene.

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DON GONYEA, HOST:

It's not unusual to hear about celebrities choosing outlandish names for their children: Jay-Z and Beyonce's Blue Ivy; Gwyneth Paltrow's daughter, Apple; magician Penn Jillette's daughter, Moxie Crimefighter. But they're not the only ones who do it. Last week, a Tennessee judge decided to change one of these unusual names for a 7-month-old boy called Messiah.

In a recent piece, Slate senior editor Dahlia Lithwick tackled the legal ins and outs of parental naming rights. She joins us from member station WVTF in Charlottesville, Va. Welcome to the program.

DAHLIA LITHWICK: Thank you so much for having me.

GONYEA: So baby Messiah's parents went to court over a child support issue. And along the way, the judge somehow decides that this baby's name needs to be changed. I think I need some explanation.

LITHWICK: They're fighting over many things, but one of the things they're fighting about is the last name. The judge jumps in and says, you know, I'm going to change the last name but hey, I'm also changing his first name because Messiah is not an appropriate first name. And then she goes on to explain, quote, "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," end quote. So she changes his first name to Martin.

GONYEA: Last year, there were over 700 babies born in the U.S. who were given the name Messiah. We know that because the Social Security Administration keeps track of such things. So the name is neither unusual nor unprecedented.

LITHWICK: It's true. And it's, in fact, on the rise. It's also worth flagging that almost 4,000 babies last year were named some version of Jesus or Hay-suse(ph).

GONYEA: So this story took you down the rabbit hole of unusual names for kids. Tell us about little Adolph Hitler Campbell of New Jersey.

LITHWICK: Adolph Hitler Campbell's father is a neo-Nazi. His daughter was called Jocelyn Aryan Nation Campbell. And he got into trouble in 2008 because he wanted a birthday cake for young Adolph Hitler to be frosted. And the bakery refused to do it, and there was a lot of attention around that.

GONYEA: And the red flag was raised by the bakery, not by some state official looking at a birth certificate early on.

LITHWICK: Precisely. The bakery just said: You can name your kid whatever you want. I'm not writing "Happy Birthday, Adolph Hitler" on the cake. There is absolutely nothing under New Jersey law that precludes you from naming your child Adolph Hitler.

GONYEA: What kind of restrictions are in place around the country? What are some of the more interesting ones?

LITHWICK: I learned that in California, believe it or not, you can't use diacritical marks. So somebody who wanted to name his daughter Lucia, with an accent over the C, was precluded from doing that. In Massachusetts, you can't use more than 40 characters in a name. That's for purely computer-based reasons. New Jersey and Nebraska don't let you use obscenities. But it really differs from state to state. Most states, though, are pretty, pretty broad in the latitude that they give you.

GONYEA: OK. So let's bounce around the world a little bit. Take me where you will.

LITHWICK: Well, Germany's interesting because it, like many, many Western democracies, it has to be immediately clear your child's gender from your name. My favorite one is probably New Zealand. New Zealand kind of becomes famous, at some point, because a judge blocked the name Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii.

(LAUGHTER)

LITHWICK: But really, some countries go as far as to have lists. In Denmark, you have 7,000 names that are preapproved by the government; same in Iceland.

GONYEA: OK. Let's go back to baby Messiah. The ACLU has weighed in.

LITHWICK: Yeah, the ACLU has offered to help the mother out. I also saw that an atheist group has weighed in on the mother's behalf. It will be challenged mid-September.

GONYEA: But there is kind of that core question: Can a parent name a child something that may make that child's life difficult down the road?

LITHWICK: Baby names in this country pass muster all the time with the courts - names from Toilet Queen to Tiny Hooker to Acne Fountain. So we don't seem to think it's the place of the courts to intercede in those cases. And I think that makes us very, very different from other Western democracies.

GONYEA: Dahlia Lithwick, thanks a lot.

LITHWICK: Thank you so much for having me.

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