Critics Cry Foul Over Judge's Decision to Change Baby Messiah's Name

The judge ordered the boy's name to be changed to "Martin DeShawn McCullough."

ByABC News
August 12, 2013, 5:12 PM

Aug. 13, 2013— -- A Tennessee judge who ruled that a baby could not be named Messiah has declined to explain her decision, but critics of her ruling have plenty to say.

What started as a parent's request to establish paternity and change the little boy's last name turned into something entirely different after Child Support Magistrate Lu Ann Ballew ordered the baby's first name to be changed as well, Knoxville station WBIR-TV reported.

Ballew, who serves the 4th Judicial District of Tennessee, including Cocke, Grainger, Jefferson and Sevier counties, ordered the boy's name to be changed from Messiah DeShawn Martin to Martin DeShawn McCullough.

"It could put him at odds with a lot of people and at this point he has had no choice in what his name is," Ballew told WBIR-TV about her decision last week to replace Messiah with his mother's surname.

"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.

Through Tennessee courts spokeswoman Michele Wojciechowski, Ballew declined to comment to

The boy's mother, Jaleesa Martin, of Newport, Tenn., said she plans to appeal the order and will not stop calling him Messiah.

"I never intended on that -- naming my son Messiah because it means God," she told WBIR-TV. "And I didn't think a judge could make me change my baby's name because of her religious beliefs."

Tim Wildmon, president of the American Family Association, which says it promotes traditional family values, said that while the group agrees "with the judge's sentiments, 'that the only true Messiah is Jesus Christ,'" it does not believe "that a judge should be able to rule on what parents name their child."

Association director Bryan Fischer, who leads the organization's Issue Analysis for Government and Public Policy division, said "you think of the number of Hispanic parents that name their child Jesus -- that originated out of a desire to honor the person of Jesus Christ."

Despite the judge's scepticism about the suitability of Messiah as a child's name, it was the fourth fastest rising name for boys over a one-year period, according to the Social Security Administration, jumping 246 spots from number 633 in 2011 to number 387 in 2012,

The judge's decision was an unnecessary breach of a parents' right to name their child what they please, ACLU-Tennessee executive director Hedy Weinberg said.

"Bottom line, parents, not the government, have the right to select a name for their child," Weinberg told "While the judge has a right to her religious beliefs, she cannot impose her faith on those who appear in her courtroom.

"Tennessee law is pretty clear that you can change your name to whatever you want, as long as it does not harm someone else or you haven't been convicted of a few specific crimes. But it doesn't even apply to [the judge]," she said.

Weinberg called the focus on the child's first name "pretty outrageous," especially when it wasn't the issue being presented.

"In this instance, the judge is imposing her religious beliefs on a family who came before her rightfully so to handle a dispute and they focused on that dispute," she said. "But the dispute in no way focused on the first name of the child."

Norman Smith, who is chairman of the legislative body for Cocke County, told that while he thought naming a child Messiah showed "a lack of respect for Christian people," he said Martin has the right to name her baby whatever she wants.

Several other members of the Cocke County legislative body did not return phone calls made by