Universal Life Church

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Universal Life Church
Universal Life Church logo.png
Leader Andre Hensley
Region Worldwide
Headquarters Modesto, California[1]
Founder Kirby J. Hensley
Origin May 2, 1962
Modesto, California
Members 18,000,000+[2][dubious ]
Official website ulchq.com

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.[3] 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, Sir Ian McKellen,[4] Conan O’Brien and Steven Tyler, among others.[5]


The Universal Life Church was founded by Kirby J. Hensley in 1959 under the name "Life Church" in Modesto, California.[3][6] He first held services in his garage, and incorporated the organization in 1962.[7]

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.[3] 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.[8]

By 1974 the church had ordained over 1 million ministers. Also in 1974, a federal judge declared that the ULC was qualified for a religious tax exemption.[9][3]

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.[10] There are currently multiple groups operating under the ULC name, most of which are unaffiliated in practice.[8]

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.[8]

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.[10]

When Kirby Hensley died in 1999, his son, Andre, took over daily operations at the Modesto group.[3] 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.[3]


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 . . ."[11] 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.[12]

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.[13] 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.[14] Most states recognize the church as a legal entity by extending recognition to its ministers.[15] 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.[14]

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.[16]

According to the organization's website, a legally binding marriage officiated by a ULC minister requires a declaration of intent and pronouncement. ULC licenses also allow ministers to perform baptisms and funerals as well as the option to legally start their own organizations.[17][18]


Their one creed (or doctrine) is stated as: "Do that which is right."[19] The ULC's stated beliefs are:[20]

  • Objective: Eternal Progression.
  • Goal: A Fuller Life for Everyone.
  • Slogan: To Live and Help Live.
  • Maxim: "We Are One."

Any person may associate themselves with the Church and apply for ordination as a minister upon agreement with its doctrine. The Universal Life Church does not issue ministerial certificates to individuals who are currently incarcerated, but any other person may be ordained as a minister.[21]


Several charter churches and other denominations are or were associated with the ULC.

Founded in 1977, the Seattle, Washington-based Universal Life Church Monastery[22] is an offshoot of the ULC helmed by president George Freeman, and known primarily for its online ordination program, established in 1995.[23] The monastery has not been affiliated with the ULC since 2006.[24]

ULC Online[edit]

Based in Folsom, California, Universal Life Church Online (ULC Online) is authorized by Modesto Headquarters to handle official church-related business. The site accepts ordination applications, offers ministry supplies, hosts a prayer board, and operates a page to submit confessions.

ULC Seminary[edit]

A charter church operated by individual ministers of the ULC, the “Universal Life Seminary”[25] offers courses elaborating a variety of spiritual and religious perspectives, while welcoming and affirming people of all belief systems.[26]

Shrine of the Irish Oak[edit]

The “Shrine of the Irish Oak” is a small Pagan temple dedicated to a syncretistic blend of Celtic and Roman polytheism, was founded in 2004 as a incorporated church in the state of Arkansas.[27] They officially chartered under the ULC of Modesto in 2013, and has remained in good stating with ULC H.Q in Modesto .[28][29]

Dallas Universal Life Church[edit]

Dallas Universal Life Church is a modern nondenominational Christian church that promotes itself as a community of doers rather than talkers.[30]

Authority to solemnize marriage[edit]

A large number of people seeking ULC ordination do so in order to be able to legally officiate at weddings[5] or perform other spiritual rites. This aspect of the ULC has provided relief to interfaith couples or same-sex couples experiencing difficulty in getting their union performed in a religious atmosphere. Some people living in remote areas also use their status as ordained ULC ministers to meet the marriage officiant needs of their communities. Thus far, the only state in which the highest court has recognized the power of a minister of the Universal Life Church to solemnize marriages is Mississippi.[31] Some states allow anyone to solemnize a marriage.[32] In states 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.[33]

United States[edit]

In the United States, the requirements for entering into marriage are determined by state law. 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.[34] North Carolina law subsequently was amended to validate marriages performed by ministers of the Universal Life Church prior to July 3, 1981,[35] and marriages solemnized by a ULC minister after that date are voidable, although equitable estoppel may prevent the parties themselves from challenging the marriage.[36] 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;[37] 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.[38] 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.[39] 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.[31] Lower courts in Pennsylvania have split on the issue.[40] In the opinion of the Tennessee Attorney General, persons ordained by the ULC are not qualified under Tennessee law to solemnize a marriage.[41]


In Canada, ULC ministers are currently not authorized to solemnize marriage in any province or territory.[42] 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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Contact Universal Life Church". Modesto, CA: Universal Life Church. Retrieved 28 January 2018. 
  2. ^ "ModestoBee.com". 
  3. ^ a b c d e f Hoesly, Dusty (2015-10-23). ""'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. 
  4. ^ Wolfson, Sam (2018-04-04). "The wedding singer: Adele and the rise of celebrity ministers". the Guardian. Retrieved 2018-09-16. 
  5. ^ a b "Couples Personalizing Role of Religion in Wedding Ceremonies". Retrieved 2018-09-16. 
  6. ^ Ashmore, Lewis (1977). The Modesto messiah: The famous mail-order minister. Universal Press. ISBN 0-918950-01-5. 
  7. ^ 1931-, Ashmore, Lewis, (1977). The Modesto messiah : the famous mail-order minister. Bakersfield, Calif.: Universal Press. ISBN 0918950015. OCLC 5551316. 
  8. ^ a b c "Inside the Universal Life Church, the Internet's one true religion - The Kernel". The Kernel. 2014-12-14. Retrieved 2018-09-16. 
  9. ^ "Cramer v. Commonwealth". Justia Law. Retrieved 2018-09-16. 
  10. ^ a b "Universal Life Goes On". modbee. Retrieved 2018-09-16. 
  11. ^ "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. 
  12. ^ "RELIGIOUS REQUIREMENTS AND PRACTICES table of contents chaplain CH". Archived from the original on June 3, 2001. 
  13. ^ Sankin, Andrew (3 April 2015). "Inside the Universal Life Church, the internet's one true religion". The Week. Retrieved 2 January 2016. 
  14. ^ a b "Welcome to the official website for Universal Life Church, InternationalHeadquarters". 
  15. ^ "ULCOnline Forum". Ulc.net. Retrieved 2016-01-02. 
  16. ^ "Universal Life Church v. Utah, 189 F. Supp. 2d 1302 - Dist. Court, D. Utah 2002". Google Scholar. 17 January 2002. 
  17. ^ "Read This Before Officiating A Wedding For Your Friends". Refinery 29. 9 August 2017. 
  18. ^ "New Millennial Weddings Trend Sees Spike In Universal Life Ministers". International Business Times. 2 August 2017. 
  19. ^ "A textbook about the Universal Life Church", Modesto, CA: Universal Life Church, 1992, rev. 2005, p. 8
  20. ^ "Welcome to the official website for Universal Life Church". Universal Life Church. Archived from the original on December 6, 2011. Retrieved December 6, 2011. 
  21. ^ "Universal Life Church, founded 1959 in Modesto - Official Site - Become Ordained". 
  22. ^ "Universal Life Church Monastery Official Site". 
  23. ^ "Chapel Bound: Getting Ordained Online". Wall Street Journal. 
  24. ^ http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/religion/2007-10-24-online-marriages_n.htm
  25. ^ "UNIVERSAL LIFE CHURCH - ULC - Get Ordained". 
  26. ^ "Statement of Beliefs Site". 
  27. ^ https://www.sos.arkansas.gov/corps/search_corps.php?DETAIL=245498&corp_type_id=&corp_name=Shrine+of+the+irish+oak&agent_search=&agent_city=&agent_state=AR&filing_number=&cmd=
  28. ^ http://www.witchvox.com/books/dt_bk.html?a=usar&id=3257
  29. ^ "The Shrine of the Irish Oak ULC, Chapel of Gaul & Brigantia". www.facebook.com. Retrieved 2015-10-05. 
  30. ^ "Dallas Universal Life Church". Dallas Universal Life Church. Dallas Universal Life Church, Inc. Retrieved 26 June 2017. 
  31. ^ a b In re Blackwell, 531 So. 2d 1193 (Miss. 1988).
  32. ^ Center for Inquiry v. Marion Circuit Court Clerk, No. 12-3751 (7th Cir. July 14, 2014).
  33. ^ 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).
  34. ^ 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).
  35. ^ Chapter 51, N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 51-1.1 (2007).
  36. ^ Duncan v. Duncan, 754 S.E.2d 451 (N.C. Ct. App. 2014).
  37. ^ Oswald v. Oswald, 2013 N.Y. Slip Op. 02811 (N.Y. App. Div. 2013).
  38. ^ Oswald v. Oswald, RJI No. 57-1-2011-0389 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. June 9, 2016).
  39. ^ Ponorovskaya v. Stecklow, 2014 NY Slip Op 24140 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 2014).
  40. ^ 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).
  41. ^ Tenn. Op. Att'y Gen. 15-14 (Feb. 6, 2015).
  42. ^ "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. 

External links[edit]