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Jaleesa Martin and Jawaan McCullough had a baby boy. Because they are not married, deciding on a last name for the child became an issue – should it be Martin or McCullough? So, the couple ended up in a Tennessee court where a judge would decide for them.

Messiah DeShawn was 8-months old when his parents went to court. His mother, Jaleesa, thought his last name should be Martin; his father wanted the boy to have his last name, McCullough.

Cocke County Magistrate Lu Ann Ballew quickly ruled that the child should have the last name of his father. But she also made a surprise and unexpected second ruling: in the opinion of the court, “the name Messiah is reserved solely for the Son of God.” She ordered the couple to change their son’s first name.

The judge wrote in her ruling: “The name Messiah places an undue burden on him that as a human being he cannot fulfill.” She also said that the name would be offensive to the area’s large Christian population placing the boy “at odds with a lot of people, and at this point, he has had no choice in what his name is.”

Judge Ballew gave the couple an hour to come up with a new name. When they didn’t, she did it herself, changing little Messiah’s legal name to Martin DeShawn McCullough.

Needless to say, the couple announced that they were not abiding by her ruling because it was “ridiculous”. The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee got involved to help the couple make their case. The ACLU issued a statement on the judge’s ruling: “The bench is not a pulpit, and using it as one, as this judge did, violates the parents’ rights and our sense that people of all faiths will be treated fairly in the courtroom.”

In an appeal hearing in Cocke County Chancery Court, Judge Ballew’s ruling was overturned. Chancellor Telford Forgety found that Judge Ballew’s decision violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, which forbids any legal action that favors a particular religion.

Additionally, the chancellor ruled that there is no law that allows the court to change a child’s first name. He ordered that the child’s name, Messiah, be reinstated, and that in accordance with Tennessee law, his last name will be that of his father – McCullough.

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