Historically the United States (on a state by state basis) has given almost complete freedom to parents to name their children, both first name and surname, with results like "Fly-fornication," "Mahershalalhashbaz," "Encyclopedia Britannia," "States Rights" (who was killed in battle as an officer for the confederacy), "Trailing Arbutus Vines" and many more. (Naming Baby: The Constitutional Dimensions of Parental Naming Rights
, Carlton F.W. Larson, 2011 [SSRN
]). In October 2012, however, New York courts made two interesting rulings that reflect limitations on renaming, if not naming, rights, for both adults and children.Matter of Kobra
: Three years after changing their eldest daughter's name to include the father's surname, "Hossain," the parents returned to court to remove Hussain from the last name of both of their daughters' names "because the neighborhood children laughed at them and made fun of them because their surname is commonly referred used by Muslims." The names they wanted to give would include the surname of neither parent. The judge found the mother's testimony about her reasons for the name change not credible and noted:
"Notwithstanding the applicant's assertions that in Bangladesh, India, it customary for everyone in "a typical household" to have completely different names, both of these children are American-born citizens and have adapted, embraced and are a part of our American culture. It is certainly not common on the shores of this nation that the "typical household" members have completely different names... This court can only imagine the confusion and hardship that these children would have as they grow older and interact with other children and others if this petition were granted."
Matter of Nawadiuko
: A father, mother, and their two children ages 15 and 18, filed to change their last name to "ChristIsKing" (having previously sought to change their then minor son's first name to "JesusIsLord." The court refused.
It ruled that it would be inappropriate to others who might then have to 'proclaim' a faith statement which they do not believe:
"For instance, a calendar call in the courthouse would require the clerk to shout out "JesusIsLord ChristIsKing" or "Rejoice ChristIsKing." Other litigants would not necessarily know whether the clerk was reading the calendar or making some religious statement in violation of the separation of church and state. "
The court also attempted to distinguish the name "JesusIsLord" from very common names like "Daniel," (meaning 'God is my Judge') or "Michael" ('Who is like God?"):
"Just about every culture throughout history has had some concept of "God" or "gods." What petitioners are advocating is a name that is a statement that a particular person is "Lord" or is the "King." This is a position which is not only offensive to persons who are not Christians but also to those who look to God a being gender neutral and not a male figure."
The court concluded that the petitioners "have a common law right to use whatever names they choose and are free to do so." It is unclear how one could assert that common law right in support of a name change at the DMV, passport office, or credit bureau.
Via Divorce: New York