In Champaign, Illinois, the city council can vote to designate a public roadway as an "Honorary [So-And-So] Way." For example, there's Honorary REO Speedwagon Way in downtown. There's also Honorary Roger Ebert Way. In April 2013, the city council resolved to designate a portion of Sixth Street, between Pilgrim Baptist Church and Eureka Street, as "Honorary Rev. W.B. Keaton Way."
This got me thinking of the potential Establishment Clause implications of naming a public street after a religious figure. Much like a creche on the front lawn of the fire house, a public street name, especially an "honorary" street name, constitutes a message sent by the government---an endorsement, if you will.
I'm not sure whether there is any legal requirements one must satisfy before obtaining the legal title of "Reverend" (if there is such a thing). I've seen Illinois state government forms that offer the option of selecting "Rev." as a prefix, but it seems if the government were to put in place a standard for deciding whether someone could hold themselves out as a reverend, that would be a First Amendment violation in and of itself. A Google search for this question returns surprisingly little information. And frankly, I'm going to lose my train of thought if I start digging for the answer to that. Maybe I'll go after it in another blog post.
Assuming, for the sake of argument, that there's no Establishment Clause problem with naming an honorary street after a reverend, where is the line? In Champaign, we have a St. Mary's Road. Would a St. John the Baptist Drive be permissible? What about a Pope Benedict XVI Boulevard? Or Jesus of Nazareth Avenue? Or Jesus Christ Lane?
As to those latter examples, Jesus of Nazareth Avenue versus Jesus Christ Lane, I would assume that many people would be shocked if the city were to actually approve of either of those names for a public roadway. But on the other hand, few legitimate historians doubt that a Jesus of Nazareth did actually exist, and his advocacy for a progressive political position likely led to his execution. Jesus Christ, however, is a purely religious title for the actual dude who lived in Palestine 2000 years ago. "Christ" comes from "Christos," the Greek word for messiah. So "Jesus Christ" literally means "Jesus the Messiah." It doesn't get much more religious than that. Jesus of Nazareth, however, is a historical figure who made big waves with his social teachings. What's wrong with naming a street after him?
Could a town get away with Honorary Jesus of Nazareth Way but not Honorary Jesus Christ Way? If Honorary Jesus of Nazareth Way would upset the Establishment Clause, would Honorary Socrates Way do the same? What about Honorary Joseph Smith Way? Or Honorary Karol Józef Wojtyła Way?
It's hard to find a guiding principle here. Maybe the rule should be that the street name can't carry any religious meaning in and apart from the actual person's name. But if that were the rule, then "Rev." would have to go. Maybe that's the right conclusion?