Does the Name “Theophilus” Violate the Establishment Clause?

The name, Theophilus, means “Lover of God.”  And various important persons have been named Theophilus: Saint Theophilus of Antioch, Theophilus Parsons (about whom our friend Don Drakeman wrote), and the Romantic poet Théophile Gautier are three that come immediately to mind.  [UPDATE: Mark reminds me that the Gospel of Luke is addressed to someone named Theophilus: “Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of those things which are most surely believed among us, Even as they delivered them unto us, which from the beginning were eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word, It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus, That thou mightest know the certainty of those things wherein thou hast been instructed.”  Luke 1:1-4.] 

I was thinking of all of these theo-philes as I perused a recent decision by a Richmond County judge here in New York, in which the court denied a petition by a family which wanted to change its last name from Nwadiuko to ChristIsKing (a few years back, the father’s petition to change his son’s name to JesusIsLord had also been denied but it seems was later accepted; something similar happened with the father’s petition to change his daughter’s name to Rejoice).

The judge in this case denied the application for the reason that he believed it would violate the Establishment Clause. 

To permit this name change would be placing unwitting members of the public including public servants in the position of having to proclaim petitioners’ religious beliefs which may or may not be in agreement with that person’s own equally strongly held but different beliefs.

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. A similar situation would occur in the classroom setting. Not only is the speaker being forced to say something which might be repugnant to the speaker but the general public would be subjected to this unwanted intrusion of the petitioners’ religious beliefs. What would be people’s reaction to hear the petitioners’ being paged at an airport or some other public event?

But how was this a violation of the Establishment Clause?  The court relied on the “inoffensiveness” test (the court may be forgiven for rechristening the endorsement test), citing to McCreary County v. ACLU, as well as to several other Establishment Clause cases, for the proposition that “permitting the petitioners to use the statutory process to effectuate a name change would involve the same prohibited entanglement especially because they could avoid the potentially offensive conduct by employing the equally available legally recognized common law right to achieve that purpose.”

The court also purported to distinguish first names like Jesus because such names do not state a contestable, and therefore offensive, religious proposition:

A review of those names however, reveals a significant difference between their origin and what the petitioners’ are advocating. Almost all of these names, most of which have “El or el” in them, a word which in Hebrew refers to “God,”or contain words that are accepted as the equivalent of “God” and both of which are modified by other words which describe what are accepted as the attributes of “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.

Frankly, this reasoning is rather odd.  Why should the offensiveness to those who believe that God is gender neutral be a special concern of the Establishment Clause?  What is the distinction between calling someone God, or lover of God, or “bearer of Christ” (which is the meaning of Christopher) and calling them JesusIsLord?  Are not both contestable and possibly offensive propositions?  And is it really true that people would be offended as a matter of gender neutrality because somebody decided to call himself “JesusIsLord”? (I am reminded of Judge Posner’s cogent criticism that this whole area is bespattered with the random armchair empirical guesswork of judges who know next to nothing about what people actually find offensive).

It may well be that government ought to deny petitions like this — in fact, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to do so in certain circumstances that have absolutely nothing to do with the Establishment Clause.  Not everything that is silly and therefore eminently regulable needs to be unconstitutional too.  If there is a common law right to change your name, and the court does not wish to issue a judicial order with respect to the name change, then that ought to be sufficient to dispose of the case.

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6 responses to “Does the Name “Theophilus” Violate the Establishment Clause?

  1. It seems to me that the difference is over name as creedal assertion. The name Theophilus does not imply any religious assertion on the part of the speaker. If the person’s name were “IAmATheophilus” it would require creedal assertion on behalf of the speaker. A proper analogy for Islam would not be Omar Mohammed, but ThereIsNoGodButAllah AndMohammedIsHisProphet. In the first case, speaking the name only gives credence that the person spoken of reveres Islam. In the second case, the name forces the speaker to utter the Shahada. The first name should thus be permitted, but not the second one. Similarly, Theophilus should be permitted, but not ChristIsKing.

  2. Hi, Nathaniel. Thanks for the comment. That may indeed be a distinction, though I disagree that in the context in which somebody was just saying somebody else’s name, uttering the name would be a “creedal assertion.” Surely it would not be in those circumstances.

    But even if the point is right, why is this a constitutional distinction implicating the Establishment Clause? On what constitutional principle are you relying? I understand (and agree) that there may be relevant distinctions here, as I suggested in the post, but I don’t see any reason why we have to talk about constitutional law in making them.

  3. Nathaniel McCallum

    On the legal principles, I am silent. I only wish to point out that Theophilus or Mohammed is not a proper analogy for ChristIsKing.

  4. Freedom of religion is not freedom from religion. How insipid and invidious are these activists.

  5. You should mention Johannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart. “Theophilus” was later changed to the Latinate “Amadeus”

  6. What of the Islamists who would contend that to profess that God loves you is the height of presumption and folly, since he condemns the unbeliever and commands war against those who pervert the teachings of the prophet? For them, it would seem, the name Theophilus, if held by any non-Muslim, would be offensive.

    And Christ-bearer (Christopher) would seem to make some very definite assumptions about the status of Jesus which Jews would probably object to. Heck, all of these names would be deemed folly and out of place by a strict new atheist. At a certain level, any assertion about God is a creedal or dogmatic assertion–it presumes certain things about our relationship with him, his nature, and his self-revelation, let alone his existence.

    No. The debate is silly, if it persists at the Constitutional level, since we are so far past that point already. Established practice includes a variety of names with a variety of dogmatic presuppositions. Simply making it explicit by putting it in English doesn’t change the fact that this ship sailed a very long time ago.

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