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Tennessee judge cited for ordering baby's name changed from Messiah

By Tim Ghianni

NASHVILLE (Reuters) - A Tennessee judge who ordered a baby's name changed from Messiah to Martin, saying the former was reserved for Jesus Christ, has been cited by a court panel for an inappropriate religious bias in violation of the state judicial code of conduct.

Child Support Magistrate Lu Ann Ballew of Cocke County in eastern Tennessee ordered the boy's first name changed over the objections of both parents when they appeared before the judge seeking to settle a number of issues, including a dispute over the child's last name.

Both the mother, Jaleesa Martin, and the father, Jawaan McCullough, were insisting on their respective surnames for baby Messiah. The magistrate instead threw out the child's birth name and ordered the boy renamed Martin DeShawn McCullough.

"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," the magistrate told Tennessee television station WBIR at the time.

The parents appealed, and in September another judge, Chancellor Telford Forgety Jr., held that Ballew's ruling was unconstitutional.

The parents, who have since dropped their dispute over the last name, have continued to call the boy Messiah DeShawn McCullough.

A three-member investigative panel of the Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct concluded this week there was "reasonable cause to believe (Ballew) has committed judicial offenses," and directed the state board's disciplinary counsel to file the charges, according to a document obtained from a court clerk.

The judicial code the panel cited centers on a clause that says religion and other personal biases must not play roles when judges are performing their duties.

Ballew could not be reached for comment.

Ballew has 30 days to file an answer with the court, at which time a hearing will be scheduled "to impose just and proper sanctions as provided by law," according to the document outlining the charges against the judge.

Messiah was the 387th most popular name for boys born in the United States in 2012, based on applications for Social Security cards filed with the U.S. Social Security Administration.

In all, there were 762 applications for boys named Messiah in 2012, more than double the 368 applications made in 2011, the Social Security Administration said.

(Reporting by Tim Ghianni; Editing by Steve Gorman, Alex Dobuzinskis and Philip Barbara)

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