Universal Life Church
|Universal Life Church|
|Founder||Kirby J. Hensley|
|Origin||May 2, 1962 |
The Universal Life Church (ULC) is a non-denominational religious organization founded by Kirby J. Hensley under the doctrine: "Do that which is right". The Universal Life Church advocates for religious freedom, offering legal ordination to become a minister free of charge to anyone who wishes to join. The ULC has ordained ministers from a wide range of backgrounds and beliefs, including Christians, atheists, Wiccans and pagans, and people of many other faiths. The ULC's popularity stems in part from a rising interest in having friends or loved ones host weddings, a trend which has attracted a range of celebrities to become ordained including Adele, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ian McKellen, Conan O’Brien and Steven Tyler, among others. Some jurisdictions do not recognize marriages solemnized by ULC ministers.
The Universal Life Church was founded by Kirby J. Hensley in 1959 under the name "Life Church" in Modesto, California. He first held services in his garage, and incorporated the organization in 1962.
The ULC began issuing mail-order ordinations shortly after its incorporation. The church’s growth was affected in part by social movements; during the Vietnam War, a widely circulated rumor claimed that ordination would qualify one for a legal exemption from the draft. Ordination requests increased dramatically, but the rumor proved to be false. The ULC and its founder, Hensley, were also featured in several publications during this time, including Rolling Stone, which further increased public awareness of the church.
Hensley’s Universal Life Church ran into difficulties as new branches of the ULC were granted charters and began moving off in different directions. The Modesto group struggled to maintain control over these other entities as ULC affiliates grew in number. There are currently multiple groups operating under the ULC name, most of which are unaffiliated in practice.
During this period, the IRS became suspicious about tax avoidance efforts within the church, eventually determining that Hensley, the Modesto ULC, and numerous affiliated churches chartered under its name were promoting tax avoidance schemes within church periodicals. As a result, the IRS withdrew ULC Modesto’s tax-exempt status in 1984. Over the next 16 years, Hensley and his family battled the IRS in court over disputed tax payments. The matter was eventually settled in 2000 when the Modesto group agreed to pay $1.5 million in back taxes.
In 1999, the ULC began offering ordinations online. News coverage about journalists and celebrities getting ordained to perform weddings helped boost the popularity of online ordination. As more people became aware of non-traditional officiants presiding over wedding ceremonies, ULC membership rolls surged. Between 1962 and 2008, the ULC issued more than 18 million ordinations worldwide.
When Kirby Hensley died in 1999, his son, Andre, took over daily operations at the Modesto group. Following Hensley’s death, an organizational split led to the creation of the ULC Monastery (now based in Seattle under the name Universal Life Church Ministries), which remains unaffiliated with the Modesto group.
Legality in US
Authority to solemnize marriage
A large number of people seeking ULC ordination do so in order to be able to legally officiate at weddings or perform other spiritual rites. According to a 2016 internal survey conducted by wedding website The Knot and reported by the Baltimore Sun, there has been a 29% increase in the number of friends or family members acting as wedding officiant since 2009, resulting in 43% of couples in the US in 2016 choosing this option. However, many jurisdictions do not recognize ministers of the Universal Life Church as wedding celebrants, and in jurisdictions in which Universal Life Church ministers are not authorized to solemnize marriages, the solemnization of a marriage by a minister of the Universal Life Church (who is not otherwise authorized) may result in the validity of the marriage being questioned.
In the United States, the requirements for entering into marriage are determined by state law. The only U.S. state in which the highest court has recognized the power of a minister of the Universal Life Church to solemnize marriages is Mississippi, although some states allow anyone to solemnize a marriage. Courts in New York, North Carolina, and Virginia have ruled that, under applicable state law, ULC ministers are not authorized to solemnize marriages and a marriage at which a ULC minister officiated therefore is not valid. North Carolina law subsequently was amended to validate marriages performed by ministers of the Universal Life Church prior to July 3, 1981, and marriages solemnized by a ULC minister after that date are voidable, although equitable estoppel may prevent the parties themselves from challenging the marriage. A more recent New York court ruling, from a different appellate court, ruled that it is a factual question whether the ULC is a "church" whose ministers have authority under New York law to solemnize a marriage; on remand, the plaintiff offered no evidence, and the New York Supreme Court, which in New York is a trial court, accepted the defendant's evidence that the ULC fits the statutory definition of a "church" and the parties' marriage, performed by one of its authorized ministers, was valid. However, that holding is not binding on other courts. A New York County trial judge stated in 2014 that marriages performed by ULC ministers in New York State are potentially invalid or at the very least in jeopardy. The Supreme Court of Mississippi has ruled that Mississippi has a less restrictive statute and recognizes ULC ministers as able to perform valid marriages in that state. Lower courts in Pennsylvania have split on the issue. In the opinion of the Tennessee Attorney General, persons ordained by the ULC are not qualified under Tennessee law to solemnize a marriage.
In Canada, ULC ministers are currently not authorized to solemnize marriage in any province or territory. In countries where ULC ministers have no authority to solemnize lawful marriage, ministers must meet other requirements which might include registering as a notary public, justice of the peace or marriage commissioner.
- "Contact Universal Life Church". Modesto, CA: Universal Life Church. Retrieved January 28, 2018.
- Hoesly, Dusty (October 23, 2015). ""'Need a Minister? How About Your Brother?': The Universal Life Church between Religion and Non-Religion"". Secularism and Nonreligion. 4 (1). doi:10.5334/snr.be/. ISSN 2053-6712.
- Wolfson, Sam (April 4, 2018). "The wedding singer: Adele and the rise of celebrity ministers". the Guardian. Retrieved September 16, 2018.
- "Couples Personalizing Role of Religion in Wedding Ceremonies". Retrieved September 16, 2018.
- Oswald v. Oswald, 2013 N.Y. Slip Op. 02811 (N.Y. App. Div. 2013); Ranieri v. Ranieri, 539 N.Y.S.2d 382 (N.Y. App. Div. 1989); State v. Lynch, 272 S.E.2d 349 (N.C. 1980); Cramer v. Commonwealth, 202 S.E.2d 911 (Va. 1974); 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, 830 - 34 (2010).
- Ashmore, Lewis (1977). The Modesto messiah: The famous mail-order minister. Universal Press. ISBN 0-918950-01-5.
- 1931-, Ashmore, Lewis, (1977). The Modesto messiah : the famous mail-order minister. Bakersfield, Calif.: Universal Press. ISBN 0918950015. OCLC 5551316.
- "Inside the Universal Life Church, the Internet's one true religion - The Kernel". The Kernel. December 14, 2014. Retrieved September 16, 2018.
- "Cramer v. Commonwealth". Justia Law. Retrieved September 16, 2018.
- "Universal Life Goes On". modbee. Retrieved September 16, 2018.
- Britto, Brittany. "The new normal: Friends, family presiding at weddings". baltimoresun.com. Retrieved October 28, 2018.
- In re Blackwell, 531 So. 2d 1193 (Miss. 1988).
- Center for Inquiry v. Marion Circuit Court Clerk, No. 12-3751 (7th Cir. July 14, 2014).
- Ranieri v. Ranieri, 539 N.Y.S.2d 382 (N.Y. App. Div. 1989); State v. Lynch, 272 S.E.2d 349 (N.C. 1980); Cramer v. Commonwealth, 202 S.E.2d 911 (Va. 1974).
- Chapter 51, N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 51-1.1 (2007).
- Duncan v. Duncan, 754 S.E.2d 451 (N.C. Ct. App. 2014).
- Oswald v. Oswald, 2013 N.Y. Slip Op. 02811 (N.Y. App. Div. 2013).
- Oswald v. Oswald, RJI No. 57-1-2011-0389 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. June 9, 2016).
- Ponorovskaya v. Stecklow, 2014 NY Slip Op 24140 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 2014).
- 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, 830 - 34 (2010).
- Tenn. Op. Att'y Gen. 15-14 (Feb. 6, 2015).
- "Wedding Laws By State". Universal Life Church Online. Retrieved January 10, 2018.
As of this writing, Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia do NOT permit ULC ministers to officiate legal marriage ceremonies.