Excerpt: Naming a Baby Is Hard Enough Without the State Involved

Senior scholar Noah Feldman comments on First Amendment issues underlying the state of Georgia’s refusal to allow a couple to give their child the last name Allah. Excerpted from the original piece on Bloomberg View.

“The state of Georgia is refusing to allow a couple to give their baby the last name Allah — not because it’s sacrilegious but because the state requires a baby’s last name to be the same as one of its parents’ or a combination of the two. That’s arguably unconstitutional, although it’s not an open and shut question. It also raises the broader question of what it means to name a child legally, and what rights parents have in relation to the government.

It’s critical to keep a distinction in mind: The government has no right to tell you what name or nickname you should use when speaking to your child. That falls within free speech, and probably within your rights to shape your intimate, private associations under the due process clause of the Constitution.

What’s at issue in the Allah case is a subtly different question: How may the state limit the name you can officially register on your child’s birth certificate?

It could be argued that name registration falls outside the constitutional protections of free speech or privacy. Yes, it’s written down on a piece of official paper, but no one necessarily uses it except the government. If that were correct, the state of Georgia could limit last names, provided it had a nondiscriminatory reason to do so.”