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Virginia Prisoner’s Name Change Request for Religious Purpose Requires Hearing

On August 17, 2017, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled a circuit court had abused its discretion in dismissing a prisoner’s application for a name change based upon religious reasons. The Supreme Court held that a religious reason for a name change presented good cause that requires lower courts to consider evidence and make decisions based upon statutory parameters.

Prisoner James Gardner Dennis petitioned to change his name to James Gardner Wright pursuant to VA Code § 8.01-217. The application sought the name change on grounds that Gardner had converted to the Native American faith, and a “tenet” of his religion required the “consolidation of his name with” that faith. He chose the surname Wright “in obedience to the Great Spirit,” as it was “the last name of his last full-blood Native American” ancestor.

The circuit court dismissed the petition, citing Dennis’ conviction on 20 counts of possession of child pornography, one count of solicitation of a minor over the Internet, one count of sexual abuse and one count of carnal knowledge. On appeal, the Virginia Supreme Court held the dismissal was an abuse of discretion because it came at the first stage of determining whether good cause for the name change existed.

The Court held that § 8.01-217 required the circuit court to consider “the reasons alleged in the application for the requested name change” in determining if good cause exists for consideration of the application. When a name change is sought “‘for religious purposes’ in furtherance of [a petitioner’s] faith,” that does “not in any way suggest that the name change [is] sought with frivolous intentions.”

Absent evidence, it could not be determined whether Dennis’ religious conversion was sincere and if the name change was actually a tenet of his faith. Once the lower court has such evidence and Dennis has satisfied the burden of proof, the court must then consider whether “the change of name (i) would not frustrate a legitimate law-enforcement purpose, (ii) is not sought for a fraudulent purpose, and (iii) would not otherwise infringe upon the rights of others.”

If any of those three statutory preconditions has not been satisfied, the purported religious motivation for seeking a name change is insufficient, standing alone, to grant the application. The circuit court’s order was reversed and the case remanded to proceed to the hearing stage of the name-change application process.

See: In re Dennis, 294 Va. 1, 802 S.E.2d 811 (Va. 2017). 

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Related legal case

In re Dennis