Court records filed after a Tennessee magistrate changed a baby’s first name from “Messiah” indicate that she first ruled to keep the original name but then changed the written record and held a second hearing.
The child’s mother, Jaleesa Martin, appealed and won on Sept. 18.
According to a brief filed in Cocke County Chancery Court by Martin’s attorneys, Child Support Magistrate Lu Ann Ballew held a paternity hearing for Messiah Martin on July 22. At the hearing, Ballew established that the boy’s father was Jawaan McCullough. She also considered McCullough’s wish to change Messiah’s surname to his own. Ballew ruled against that request, keeping the child’s name Messiah Martin.
However, Ballew later reconsidered. According to the brief, in the magistrate’s written findings “the section regarding the child’s name was originally filled out but then appears to have been whited out, with the magistrate then writing that the child’s name is ‘reserved until further hearing.’”
Ballew called a second hearing on Aug. 8, where she changed the baby’s name to Martin McCullough, although neither parent had requested the change in the first name.
In the new written findings, Ballew explained the change by saying that the name “Messiah” was not in the child’s best interest.
“‘Messiah’ means Savior, Deliverer, the One who will restore God’s Kingdom. ‘Messiah’ is a title that is held only by Jesus Christ,” she wrote.
Ballew further stated that “it is highly likely that he will offend many Cocke County citizens by calling himself ‘Messiah’.”
The brief filed was in support of Jaleesa Martin’s request to reverse Ballew’s decision. It argued that there is no legal basis for the magistrate to change the child’s first name and takes issue with the idea that the name Messiah is harmful to the child.
“The Magistrate’s decision, while couched in terms of being in the child’s best interests, is a grossly unconstitutional imposition of the Magistrate’s own religious beliefs upon (Jaleesa Martin, Jawaan McCullough) and their child,” it stated.
A hearing took place on Sept. 18 and Chancellor Telford E. Forgety Jr. overturned Ballew's decision, ruling that the lower court acted unconstitutionally. He said the lower court violated the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution.