Disciplinary Charges Filed Against “Messiah” Judge

In August, Tennessee family court judge Lu Ann Ballew changed a child’s name from “Messiah,” over the parents’ objection:

“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,” Judge Ballew said….

According to Judge Ballew, it is the first time she has ordered a first name change. She said the decision is best for the child, especially while growing up in a county with a large Christian population.

“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,” Judge Ballew said.

As I noted at the time,

The first reason strikes me as clearly unconstitutional under the Establishment Clause. A judge may not reject parents’ decisions based on her view of the messianic status of Jesus — that is a theological question that cannot be used as the basis of government decisionmaking about people’s rights. This principle most often arises in church property disputes, where the Supreme Court has held that courts may not decide which faction in a church is the more religiously orthodox, but it also applies more broadly to prohibit the government from adjudicating people’s rights based on theological judgments (see, e.g., United States v. Ballard). But beyond this constitutional question, I quite doubt that Tennessee law authorizes judges to make decisions based on their theological judgments.

The second reason — the risk of social difficulties for the child — was, I argued, more defensible, though still on balance not terribly persuasive. A month later, the decision was reversed.

Now, the Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct has filed charges against Judge Ballew, faulting the judge for relying on the first reason I noted above (the theological one, not the sociological one), and also for commenting to the public about the pending case. These actions, the Board argues, undermined confidence in the judiciary, manifested prejudice (presumably religious prejudice) and partiality, and constituted impermissible commentary on a pending case.

Thanks to Prof. Howard Friedman (Religion Clause) for the pointer.

UPDATE: I originally erroneously characterized the judge’s decision as refusing to allow the child’s name to be changed to Messiah; in fact, the judge refused to allow the child’s name to remain Messiah (it had already been so set by the parents), as my original post had noted. Thanks to Prof. Seth Barrett Tillman for the correction.