Julie L. Kessler
lawyer traveler writer


What’s in a name?

Some of you may recall that back in 2008, a New Jersey man made headlines when he made a ruckus about a bakery that refused to frost his son’s birthday cake with his name–which just happened to be Adolf Hitler Campbell. (One of Adolf Campbell’s sisters was named Joyce Lynn Aryan Nation Campbell.) Mr. Campbell was in the news again thereafter when his fourth wife got pregnant and they publicly discussed naming their unborn child Eva Braun. Clearly, there was a familial theme going on there in New Jersey.


All of these given names are, of course, perfectly legal. Their legality, perfect or imperfect, does not mean that it does not require herculean strength not to vomit up yesterday’s dinner at the thought of those morally bereft moniker selections. Not to mention the enormous parental curse with which one can endow one’s offspring in engaging in such naming practices. When parents do something seriously lame, regardless of context, one often hears the silly though often pertinent joke circulate that “a license is required by the state to drive a car, but not to have children.” But I digress.


In Tennessee last week, during a family court proceeding to determine paternity and child support for a toddler named Messiah, the child’s unwed parents also fought over his last name. The magistrate, in an act which can only be described as demonstrating unmitigated chutzpah, also decided to change Messiah’s first name to Martin. In doing so, the bench officer cited the often overused “best interests of the child” catch-all phrase for judicial imposition, arguing that since Cocke County, Tennessee has “a large Christian population . . . it is highly likely that he [the child] will offend many citizens . . . .”


Frankly, is the name Messiah any different from naming a child Moses, Mohammad, or Jesus? All of those are fairly common given names in today’s religious melting pot. But really, that’s beside the point. The point is that if a society’s culture can be viewed as a house (or, for that matter, a condominium or apartment), then language is the key to opening the front door. The question is, who gets to decide which language is acceptable? It is our duty as members of a sane society to open and have the conversation about the correctness of such names, and ultimately to judge people like Mr. Campbell, and to a certain extent, perhaps, the parents of baby Messiah. But society’s ability to judge a person’s character content or religious choices does not have legal repercussions, nor should it. Ever. Those decisions can never be made by judicial fiat determined in a court of law under color of it. Not only are courts not the place for religious promotion, they are also not the place for proselytization, religious dogma, or persuasion. It’s one thing for courthouses to have “One nation under God” plastered on their walls and even to use Christian Bibles to swear witnesses in before they take the stand to give testimony. It is, however, something else altogether for a judicial officer to say with regard to your offspring’s first name, “It’s my way or I’m changing the highway.”


As I come from a family some of whose members were Holocaust survivors, no doubt I would have very serious issues if I went, for example, to a school function and were introduced to the Campbell family by their given names. But that’s me, and I would simply have to deal with it. However, bumping into Jesus at Home Depot, Moses at the Israeli market I go to, or Mohammad at the local Lebanese restaurant bothers me not at all. But that too is me, since I am not religious. The key is that this is what rational, thinking people do: they decide for themselves what they can tolerate and what they cannot, and then adjust their universe accordingly in keeping with those sensibilities. God help us all if instead those choices fall into the hands of our courts of law to decide.

Date Posted:  Aug. 20 2013