NEWPORT, Tenn. - An East Tennessee magistrate who ordered a baby’s name changed from Messiah to Martin because she believes Messiah is a title held only by Jesus Christ has been replaced by his district's chief judge.
Lu Ann Ballew was a child support magistrate, serving at the discretion of Tennessee’s fourth judicial district head judge, Duane Slone. Slone terminated Ballew on Friday and appointed a new magistrate.Chief Judge Slone did not immediately return a call, but another judge in the district, Rex Henry Ogle, said in a phone interview that it was a group decision by the local judges to replace Ballew. Ogle said Ballew’s decision to change baby Messiah’s name was a factor, but not the sole factor, in their decision.
The name change happened in August, when Jalessa Martin and Jawaan McCullough appeared before Ballew at a child support hearing in Newport about their 7-month-old son Messiah Martin. As part of the hearing, the father requested the baby’s last name be changed to McCullough.
Ballew surprised both parents by ordering that the baby’s name change to Martin McCullough, saying that the name Messiah was not in the baby’s best interest. Her written order stated that “Labeling this child ‘Messiah’ places an undue burden on him that as a human being, he cannot fulfill.”
She also said that the name would likely offend many residents of Cocke County, with its large Christian population.
The decision quickly made international news, prompting the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation to file a complaint with the Board of Judicial Conduct.
Ballew’s decision was overturned in chancery court a month later, and both parents agreed to name the baby Messiah McCullough.
Ballew, an attorney, still faces a March 3 hearing on accusations that her order to change the baby's name violated Tennessee’s Code of Judicial Conduct. Among other things, the code requires judges to perform all duties without bias or prejudice based on religion.
In a response to the Board of Judicial Conduct, Ballew has denied that her ruling was a violation.