Who do we trust to name their own child?

Young baby gigglesYesterday we  included a link in our Daily Feminist Cheat Sheet about a Tennessee judge who imposed her own religious views and changed the name of a baby against his parents’ wishes. But as rapper Meek Millz said, “it’s levels to this shit” and this is more than an issue of violating the separation between church and state. The racial and family dynamics in this story are important and deserve some unpacking.

Jaleesa Martin and the father of her son, of New Port Tennessee, could not agree on their baby’s last name and were going to child support court to resolve the issue. They did, however, agree on the first name, which was Messiah. Judge Lu Ann Ballew came back with a decision ordering the baby boy’s name be “Martin Deshawn McCullough”. If you’re wondering what happened to Messiah, so is Jaleesa.

Judge Ballew’s justification for this decision?

“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”

And of course, Ballew was concerned with the safety of the child in a predominantly Christian area. Being named 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.” There are clearly no fucks given about the mandated separation of church and state. (Or the implicit contradiction in the assumption that a community of Christians would shun a child because of his name.) But there is also some serious logic missing from these arguments, and some serious mistrust of unwed mothers.

First of all, Ballew’s claim that the term “messiah” (notice no capitalization) has only been “earned” for use by Jesus just isn’t correct. The word messiah is not a proper noun. It is a word with several interpretations. To say that a baby boy has not “earned” such a title is invalid. (Also, she definitely threw some subliminal shade with her emphasis on an earned title. This is my own interpretation but it seemed that she was implying that the parents of this little boy of color have no reason to think so highly of their son.)

Ballew also brought up the fact that the baby has had no choice in what his name is. I can’t help but wonder how many of the other infants who have been the subject of her court cases picked their own names fresh out of the womb. I also wonder is she would support the trans folks and other adults changing their name later in life. I have a nagging suspicion that she wouldn’t.

But it’s not as appalling to me that Judge Ballew made a weak case against baby Messiah’s name, as it is that she had the audacity to give the baby a name herself! Her “clever” mash up of both parents’ last names, keeping the middle name in tact, was the ultimate sign of disrespect and neglect of the right that Jaleesa and the baby’s father have to name their child whatever the hell they want. She went outside of her boundaries by not only imposing her religious views on this family, but by giving herself the authority to think “down into the future” for Messiah and put his life on the right track by giving him a suitable name. She didn’t trust that Jaleesa and her parental partner could make such a decision. This reeks of a white privilege and a misuse of judicial power. She is not someone I trust to make decisions on behalf of families.

Jaleesa is appealing the decision in September and will continue to call her (super adorable) son Messiah.

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