Legal status of the Universal Life Church
The examples and perspective in this article deal primarily with the United States and do not represent a worldwide view of the subject. (September 2018) (Learn how and when to remove this template message)
Since its inception, the Universal Life Church has come into legal conflicts over such issues as the validity of ordinations and the tax-exempt status of the organization.
Since its inception, the Universal Life Church has come into legal conflicts over such issues as the validity of ordinations and the tax-exempt status of the organization. In the 1964 case of Universal Life Church Inc. vs. United States of America, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California ruled that the Court would not "praise or condemn a religion, however excellent or fanatical or preposterous it may seem," as "to do so . . . would impinge on the guarantees of the First Amendment . . ." All subsequent cases have ruled in favor of Universal Life Church as a legal and valid church establishment. The United States military chaplain's handbook lists ULC as a recognized church.
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) sued in the 1970s, arguing the ULC was not considered a religious group. The lawsuits were settled in 2000 with the church paying $1.5 million in back taxes. The IRS has ruled in some years, but not in others, that the church was tax exempt, depending on whether the organization had filed its required annual statements in those years. Most states recognize the church as a legal entity by extending recognition to its ministers. Not all states recognize the ULC as a nonprofit organization; therefore, it is up to each minister to determine his or her legal standing. The ULC assists its ministers who experience problems with being recognized in their home state or country.
In 2001, the state of Utah passed legislation banning ordinations via the internet. Subsequently, the ULC filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of this legislation, and in 2002 a U.S. District Court ruled in favor of ULC on the grounds that online ordination is no different than ordination over the phone, by fax, or in person, various methods of ordination allowed under this legislation.
In 2002 the Church sued the state of Utah regarding the legality of its Internet-based ordination process. Utah had passed a law banning ministers ordained by mail or over the Internet from officiating legal marriage. The court ruled in favor of the Church, declaring the statute unconstitutional and permanently barring the state from enforcing it, noting among other things that there is essentially no difference between an Internet-based application or mail-order application and one sent by courier, fax machine, phone, or done in person. Had the law been allowed to stand, it might well have had the unintended consequence of "defrocking" many ministers from traditional churches for purposes of officiating marriage, for the ULC is not the only church to conduct such business via U.S. Mail.
Another common criticism of ULC ordination is that some people, usually as a joke, submit ordination requests for their pets. The ULC has tried to curb the ordination of pets, but if the name on the application appears to be legitimate, the pet will probably receive ordination. The ULC website contains the following warning against fraudulent ordination requests, including attempts to ordain pets: "No one is rejected because of their name, but we must protect the integrity of the records against those who fraudulently submit requests for pets, obscene names, etc. Applying for ordination in the name of a fictitious person or animal, or the submission of a person's name without his or her permission is fraud, and may subject you to prosecution!"
- Universal Life Church v The United States of America Judge James Franklin Battin's ruling for the ULC
- Universal Life v USA Another ULC vs IRS case
- Ctr. for Inquiry, Inc. v. Marion Circuit Court Clerk, in which the court authorized secular humanists to perform marriages since members of the "Universal Life Church can solemnize a wedding." Indiana's statute may change in the future.
- Blackwell v Magee ULC authorized to solemnize marriage
- State of North Carolina v. Lynch (December 1980) State convicts person married by ULC minister of bigamy in second marriage, then overturned on appeal due to the marriage by the ULC minister being found as not a legal marriage.
- Fulton v. Vickery (March 1985) Marriage by ULC minister upheld since marriage occurred prior to July 3, 1981 (see NC § 51-1.1)
- Lynch v. Universal Life Church (October 1985) Individual accuses ULC of fraud; church wins in district court.
- ULC marriages prior to July 3, 1981 are validated. (NC § 51-1.1.) Marriages solemnized after July 3, 1981 are questionable in legality due to the above case law.
- Ranieri v Ranieri Marriage annulled on basis that ULC minister lacked qualifications under New York Statutes: no congregation and not appointed by head of ecclesiastical order.
- Ravenal v Ravenal Marriage annulled on basis ULC minister lacked actual church or stated meeting place.
- Rubino v City of New York New York City right to deny license to ULC ministers upheld.
- Oswald v Oswald Oswald v. Oswald does not hold that ULC ministers can perform marriages in New York. The case was remanded to the trial (Supreme) court because the appellate court determined there was material issues of fact and the summary judgment annulling the marriage should not have been granted. Whether New York recognizes the ULC as a legitimate religious organization, or its ministers, is still a question of fact in the Third Judicial Department, at least until the issue can be litigated at trial.
- "O'Neill v Bucks County". (1.45 MB) Judge affirms the right for ULC ministers to officiate marriages. Only valid in Bucks County.
- Universal Life Church vs. the State of Utah (2002) Internet-based minister ordination declared valid
- Cramer v Commonwealth of Virginia The Supreme Court of Virginia held that a trial court did not err by rescinding the authority of ULC "ministers" to perform marriages based on Virginia Code section 20-23. The Court stated: "[w]e do not believe that the General Assembly ever intended to qualify, for licensing to marry, a minister whose title and status could be so casually and cavalierly acquired." 214 Va. 561, 567 (1974).
Opinions of state attorneys general
- Kentucky Office of the Attorney General Opinion 78-303
- "Tennessee Attorney General Opinion 97-138" (PDF). (107 KB)
- Tennessee Attorney General Opinion 97-041
- Tennessee Attorney General Opinion 15-14
- "Texas Attorney General Opinion on ULC ministers and exemptions from the Psychologists Licensing Act" (PDF). (626 KB)
- "South Carolina Office of the Attorney General Opinion" (PDF). (6.08 KB) (11 January 1971)
- "South Carolina Office of the Attorney General Opinion" (PDF). (5.02 KB) (29 March 1973)
- "Virginia State office Of the Attorney General Opinion" (PDF).
- Washington State Office of the Attorney General Opinion No. 117 (1971)
- Robert E. Rains, Marriage in the Time of Internet Ministers: I Now Pronounce You Married, but Who Am I to Do So?, 64 U. Miami L. Rev. 809 (2010)
- Bruce J. Casino, I Know It When I See It': Mail-Order Ministry Tax Fraud and the Problem of A Constitutionally Acceptable Definition of Religion, 25 Am. Crim. L. Rev. 113 (1987)
- Alexandra Marin, Internet-Ordained Ministers and Marriage in Pennsylvania: Bucks County and York County Disagree on Legality of Marriage According to the Pennsylvania Marriage Act, 10 Rutgers J.L. & Religion 18 (2009)
- "United States District Court, E.D. California. Universal Life Church, Inc., Plaintiff, v. United States of America, Defendant. Civ. No S-1954" (PDF). United States District Court For the Eastern District of California. March 1, 1974.
- "RELIGIOUS REQUIREMENTS AND PRACTICES table of contents chaplain CH". Archived from the original on June 3, 2001.
- Sankin, Andrew (3 April 2015). "Inside the Universal Life Church, the internet's one true religion". The Week. Retrieved 2 January 2016.
- "Welcome to the official website for Universal Life Church, InternationalHeadquarters".
- "ULCOnline Forum". Ulc.net. Retrieved 2016-01-02.
- "Universal Life Church v. Utah, 189 F. Supp. 2d 1302 - Dist. Court, D. Utah 2002". Google Scholar. 17 January 2002.
- "Read This Before Officiating A Wedding For Your Friends". Refinery 29. 9 August 2017.
- "New Millennial Weddings Trend Sees Spike In Universal Life Ministers". International Business Times. 2 August 2017.
- Cody Clark (Daily Herald). "You may now lick the bride: Canine clergyman helps household pets tie the knot". Pet Weds: Pet & Animal Nuptials. Retrieved 2009-06-15.
- Ctr. for Inquiry, Inc. v. Marion Circuit Court Clerk, 758 F.3d 869, 872 (7th Cir. 2014)