Court Refuses Petition to Change Name to ChristIsKing (with a Special Bonus Sharia Reference)

From In re Nawadiuko, 2012 WL 4840800 (N.Y. City Civ. Ct. Oct. 1, 2012):

Currently before the court is an application by the Nwadiuko family to change their last names from Nwadiuko to “ChristIsKing” — one word with capital a C, I & K as the start of each internal word….

The parent petitioners were born in Nigeria and came to the United States in 1987. In 1996 they founded the “Christ Is Lord Evangelistic Association” and began a full time ministry. In October 2009 the father was arrested on the Staten Island Ferry while preaching to commuters when he refused to obey a police officer’s request to clear an aisle. The mother was also arrested at that time for failing to obey a request to move. Both parents subsequently pleaded guilty to charges arising from that incident….

There exists two recognized methods for an individual to change his or her name. “Under the common law, a person may change his or her name at will absent fraud, misrepresentation or interference with the rights of others.” Changing a name under the common law can be accomplished without resorting to a judicial proceeding and the new name can become effective through that person’s consistent usage or habit. “Anybody may change their names without asking the approval of the court at any time and, provided fraud was not the inspiration for the act, the new name will be as effectively assumed and recognized as it its use had been provided for by a court order.”

In addition to a person’s common law right to change their name, New York has enacted a statute which enables a person to file a petition to the county, supreme or civil court where the petitioner resides for an order changing his or her name [New York Civil Rights Law § 60 et seq.]. The Civil Rights Law “provides the necessary directions for effectuating a court-ordered name change as an alternative procedure to the one under common law; they neither diminish nor abrogate a person’s common law right to effectuate a name change….The statutory procedure differs only in the speed and certainty of the change.” “Primarily, the court is charged with examining whether the name sought to be assumed will be a source of or instrumentality for fraud, evasion or interference with the rights of others….The court must also consider whether the proposed name is of such a nature as to confuse or mislead the general public.”.

These two methods still exist and the avenue of a common law name change remains available to the petitioners without resorting to the courts. This being said, in post 9–11 America, this right may be more available in theory than in practice. The court system has had an appreciable increase in the number of name change filings in great part triggered by the post 9–11 need for security. Security concerns now require consistency between a person’s name on a birth certificate, driver’s license, passport, marriage licenses, social security cards and other common everyday forms of identification issued by various levels of government….

“A name-change request made pursuant to statute gives the state the authority to place certain limits on the name by permitting the court to refuse the name when the applicant has an improper motive, when the possibility of fraud on the public, and when the choice of name is bizarre, unduly lengthy, ridiculous, or offensive to common decency and good taste” [ In the Matter of the Petition of Variable, 190 P.3d 354, 356 (2008) [Footnote: Petitioner sought court approval to change his name to “Fuck Censorship!”.] ]. In that case the court noted that a petitioner may use his or her common law right to change his or her name to any name at all, utilize it as part of his or her right to free speech and a “petitioner may make a political statement by changing his name, but once he seeks the state’s imprimatur, he is subject to the court’s discretion in granting the government’s approval of the name … one has a common law right to assume any name, and a right to engage in a social experiment, but one does not have a right to require the state to participate in the experiment” [ In the Matter of the Petition of Variable, p. 356]….

The application in this case to have the family name changed to “ChristIsKing” … [should be rejected because i]t will result in person’s not holding petitioners’ religious beliefs to proclaim them when merely engaging in the common everyday act of calling another person by his or her name….

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.” [One of the petitioners had earlier tried to have his name changed to “JesusIsLord,” and the other had her name changed to “Rejoice.”] 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? Common sense tells us that more people call us by our name on a daily basis than we refer to ourselves. The number of people who refer to themselves in the third person on a regular basis is limited….

What petitioners are seeking here is in many ways beyond the First Amendment issues of [past Supreme Court cases barring religious speech by the government]. Petitioners will require persons who do not have the same religious beliefs as they do to be compelled to recite as a person’s name a statement of religious belief. In the United States we have the freedom of expression and the freedom to believe or not believe what we want, but we do not have the right to compel others to subscribe to our own firmly held beliefs….

At the hearing the court inquired as what it should do should a devil worshiper seek to have his name changed to “SatanIsLord” and “TheDevilIsKing?” The petitioners’ response was to the effect as to why would anyone want to do that? Indicating that they believed that the name they sought was a universally recognized positive religious statement that all persons should embrace. Their reaction showed an inability to recognize that many people would not only not be comfortable reciting the petitioners’ proposed name but that in doing so would be violating that person’s religious or lack of religious beliefs….

There is another issue petitioners’ proposed name raises and that is, would a person announcing it be committing “blasphemy?” The adult petitioners are ministers and travel to preach their version of Christianity. Thereby subjecting them and their activities to the laws of other states or countries. Six states still have blasphemy laws on the books. New York’s fell in 1952 with the … decision in Joseph Burstyn Inc. v. Wilson [which is generally seen as rendering all American blasphemy statutes unconstitutional -EV]. Although a prosecution for blasphemy is extremely unlikely in this day and age, many of the statutes use the term “contumeliously reproaching” God, Jesus Christ, the Holy Ghost, or the holy scriptures. Could petitioners’ actions be found by some other equally religious persons be classified as being “contumelious?”

At the hearing the court asked the petitioners what would happen if they did something that was viewed as being unethical or not in the teachings of Jesus, would they not be demeaning Jesus’ name and weakening the validity of their message? The adult child indicated he wanted to play basketball in college. The court asked what would be the reaction if a newspaper headline read “JesusIsLord ChristIsKing” misses shot to cost team championship would that not reflect poorly on a name he took to honor. He and his family members believed it would not be a problem. This again leads to the conclusion that they are not thinking as to how other people will view their name.

Interesting the petitioner parents were both born in Nigeria. Twelve Nigerian states have adopted Sharia law which does recognize blasphemy as a crime and has some severe punishments depending on the level of the blasphemy. If petitioners returned to an area of Nigeria enforcing Sharia law, members of the Islamic faith calling petitioners’ name in those areas might be committing blasphemy under Sharia law subjecting themselves to some degree of punishment. …

I think the concern about what might happen on petitioners’ travels in Nigeria is misplaced — American name change decisions ought not be influenced, I think, by other countries’ suppression of free speech and religious freedom. Likewise, the worry about how people would react if JesusIsLord ChristIsKing lost the big game, or did something worse, strike me as misplaced.

But the court’s main concern — that petitioners shouldn’t use government authority to put other people in a position where they would have to say things that seem like political or religious statements — strikes me as quite fair. If you think Christ is King, you’re free to think that and say that, but it doesn’t follow that you should be able to do something that requires other people to say (or even write) “Christ Is King.” And the same would be true, I think, for ideological statements, from “CommunismIsEvil” to “SaveTheWhales.”

To be sure, the people who have to say the name would have some flexibility, if they are creative and feel that their job allows them to be creative: Someone could, for instance, ignore the capitalization, and say something that sounds like “Kristissking,” rhyming with “the risking.” But others might not think their jobs let them do that, especially given the capitalization and given what they might know about the user’s own pronunciation of the word. To some extent, they might be in the same bind even if the petitioner used the common-law name change process, but that the name has been “made official” by a court order would, I think, exacerbate the problem.

Now some common names do have a strong religious connection — Jesus, common among Hispanics, and Mohammed are classic and obvious examples, and one can add less obvious ones as well (e.g., Theophilus, Thor, etc.). Indeed, many names are connected to some sort of religious figure, whether a biblical character or a saint. But precisely because they are well-known as names, saying them feels to most people like saying a name, not like making a political or religious statement.

So I think the court’s analysis, under the “interference with the rights of others” prong of the statute, is generally sound, though the worry about what Sharia law would do in Nigeria is not. For more interesting name change cases, see this post chain.