- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 25, 2003

Every morning in a small town just south of Salt Lake City, Santa Claus swaps his green and red indoor garb for a blue-collared bus driver’s shirt. He wears his trademark cap during 10-hour shifts for the Utah Transit Authority, and a name tag on his chest reads “S. Claus” — a nod from his employer that he is, indeed, who he claims to be.

Mr. Claus stops driving in December to prepare for the holidays with an annual round of private parties and Christmas festivals. For those who question the legitimacy of his name, he can show a driver’s license and credit card issued to “Santa Claus.”

An attorney helped him win the right to use the name. Mr. Claus, who until August 2001 was named David Lynn Porter, had to fight for his new moniker.

A local judge first denied the white-bearded look-alike’s request for a name change, saying it would cause confusion and thwart any legitimate complaints against him from plaintiffs who would face the challenge of suing Santa Claus.

Mr. Claus had to go all the way to the Utah Supreme Court to win his case.

“It’s the best thing I ever did,” Mr. Claus, 44, said in an interview. “People come up to me all the time and ask, ‘Is that really your name?’”

Now, with a new name and his own Web site (www.sclaus.net), the former Mr. Porter highlights a thriving business in name changes.

Americans nationwide are changing their names to reconnect with ethnic roots, fit into the culture, escape unwanted relationships, or proclaim their individuality in a way that’s difficult to ignore, say lawyers who handle name-change cases.

Others simply don’t like their name, and shifting to ones they prefer allows them to create new identities, said Anne Bernays, co-author of “The Language of Names: What We Call Ourselves and Why It Matters.”

“It’s a very, very profound change to make in your life,” said Mrs. Bernays, who co-wrote the 256-page book with husband and Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Justin Kaplan. “The name you get used to by a certain age, it’s not just a label. It’s you.”

The District is no exception to the name-change phenomenon. In 2002, the number of petitions filed in D.C. Superior Court rose 9 percent from the previous year to 305 — a five-year high, according to court statistics.

Some of the court’s most recent name-change petitions are as diverse as they are eye-catching. Earlier this month, a woman named Rebecca changed her name to Beck to accompany a sex-change operation. A few weeks ago, a Washington woman had to switch her 1-year-old son’s middle and last names because they were printed in the wrong order on his birth certificate.

A recent case that might have raised some eyebrows if approved involved a Washington resident who tried to formally change his name to Jesus Christ. The man, 52-year-old Peter Robert Phillips, already had a D.C. driver’s license, a social security card and a Florida birth certificate under the name Jesus Christ, but he needed court documentation to obtain a driver’s license in West Virginia, court records show.

He at first gave no reason for the change, which D.C. law requires, and when pressed by a D.C. judge he hand-wrote a statement saying he was “a member of a religious order known as the kingdom of God. According to the New Testament of the Bible, anyone using the name Jesus Christ should be allowed to do so.”

Senior Judge Tim Murphy didn’t agree. After examining both Catholic and Protestant Bibles, he denied the petition, saying he found no evidence to support Mr. Phillips’ claim.

“Allowing a name change to Jesus Christ could serve to both offend people and incite violence or protest,” the judge wrote in his five-page ruling.

Most name-change petitions, however, are granted during a short court hearing.

In the District, as is true in most states, adult applicants wishing to legally document their name changes must explain why they want the change. They also must pay a $60 fee, not including the mandatory cost of publishing the change once a week for three consecutive weeks in a newspaper. Minors must have a parent or guardian apply for them.

Applicants generally cannot switch monikers with fraudulent intent — to avoid paying debts, escape a lawsuit or get away with a crime, said Richard Granat, president of the Name Change Law Information Center, a legal-information service and business specializing in Web-based legal self-help tools.

Racial slurs and “fighting words” or obscenity are also banned, as are confusing names such as numbers and punctuation. In 1979, for instance, the Minnesota Supreme Court ruled that a man attempting to change his name to 1069 (pronounced one-zero-six-nine) could not legally do so. The court hinted, though, that the law might allow him to legally become “One Zero Six Nine” or “Ten Sixty-Nine.”

Neither can the change interfere with the rights of another person, such as taking a celebrity’s name for profit.

Yet many of those in Hollywood aren’t using real names themselves. For years, actors and entertainers have chosen snappier-sounding monikers.

Former “M*A*S*H” star Alan Alda was once named Alphonso d’Abruzzo. Jennifer Aniston was originally Jennifer Anistopoulou. There’s Chevy Chase — formerly Cornelius Crane Chase — and Gladys Leeman, known to “Cheers” fans as Kirstie Alley. Ramon Estevez switched his name to Martin Sheen. His son, formerly Carlos Irwin Estevez, followed as Charlie Sheen.

Singers, too, frequently spice up their images with new identities. MTV fans know him as Eminem, but the rapper is actually Marshall Bruce Mathers III. Shania Twain was Eileen Regina Edwards until she assumed her stepfather’s last name and altered her first name in 1990.

Statesmen, too, have changed their names. Former President Bill Clinton was born William Jefferson Blythe. Gerald Ford’s original name was Leslie Lynch King, Jr. Joseph Stalin was born Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvilli.

Most people changing their names aren’t seeking fame but a chance to start anew, Mr. Granat said. His online center, www.namechangelaw.com, sees a high percentage of its business from heavy-immigration states such as Florida, California and Texas, he said.

The site sells about 350 name-change kits per month, the highest rate it has seen in its six-year history, Mr. Granat said. The Maryland-based company’s site averages about 12,000 unique visitors and 120,000 page views monthly, which is “decent traffic for a niche site like ours,” he said.

William Hadley, a Salt Lake City lawyer who represented Mr. Claus and handles “perhaps half a dozen” name-change petitions annually, said the extreme cases are “definitely” unusual.

Mr. Hadley said children are always eager to hear about his jolly client.

“They think it’s a hoot,” he said, laughing. “I make a lot of jokes about it. [Celebrity lawyer] Johnny Cochran may represent the stars, but can he say he represents Santa?”

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