Universal Life Church
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|Universal Life Church|
|Founder||Kirby J. Hensley|
|Origin||May 2, 1962
The Universal Life Church (ULC) is a religious denomination that has no traditional doctrine, believing merely in "that which is right". It offers anyone ordination as a minister free of charge, primarily to those who marry couples. In 1969, soon after its foundation, critics referred to it derisively as an ordination mill due to its simplified ordination procedures. The organization states that anyone can become a minister without having to go through any process.
The Universal Life Church believes that it is every person’s responsibility to act holistically, to do nothing to infringe on the rights of others, and to uphold religious diversity and freedom. Additionally, everyone must be able to practice their spiritual and religious beliefs without interference or threat from any government, religious, or societal force. The ULC's stated beliefs are:
- Objective: Eternal Progression.
- Goal: A Fuller Life for Everyone.
- Slogan: To Live and Help Live.
- Maxim: "We Are One."
Founded under the name "Life Church" in 1959 by the Reverend Kirby J. Hensley. He operated the church out of his garage. Disappointed with the Pentecostal church, Hensley decided to venture on his own to find his religion. After five years of studying various religions, according to his own statements, Hensley concluded that the proper religion may differ for each person, and everyone is entitled to choose his or her own religion. No one should be criticized or condemned for wanting to practice the belief of his or her choice. Hensley incorporated in California on May 2, 1962 as Universal Life Church with Co-Founder and (then) Vice President Lewis Ashmore. Hensley served as the minister of the congregation and President of the Board of Directors until his death in 1999.
During the 1960s and 1970s many people in the United States became ministers in the ULC because they believed that being a minister either would help keep them from being drafted into military service during the Vietnam War or would enable them to get income tax relief as members of the clergy. Both of these beliefs have always been false, as merely being ordained does not exempt a person from compulsory military service, and ministers as individuals receive no tax benefit; only churches themselves are tax exempt. Ministers do have the option of applying for exemption from Social Security taxes; however, this may limit eligibility for Social Security benefits. Also, this exemption applies only to ministers whose income comes from religious services and applies only to such income.
The Universal Life Church was referenced by Abbie Hoffman in his 1970 book Steal This Book, which encouraged readers to request an ordination from the ULC, receive notification of the ordination, and then cut out and laminate a card indicating the new minister's ordination. He regarded the ULC as "unquestionably one of the best deals going".
Hensley continued to lead the Universal Life Church until his death on March 19, 1999. His widow, Lida, was subsequently elected president of the church, a position she held until her death on December 31, 2006. On January 14, 2007, the ULC's board of directors elected the Hensleys' son Andre Hensley president. He had previously been the office manager of the headquarters, running the day-to-day business of the church.
Ordination and ULC clergy
As of early 2009, ULC was sending out between 8,500 and 10,000 ordination certificates each month. Between 1962 and 2008, it sent out almost 18 million, worldwide.
The ULC Headquarters holds weekly church services in a historic church building in Modesto. ULC ministers are authorized by the church to officiate at weddings and funerals, perform baptisms or verbal baby naming ceremonies, hold services (also called meetings), and other sacraments and rites regularly performed by ordained members of clergy and part of the particular belief system the minister represents. All ministers in the ULC are also authorized and encouraged to ordain others as ministers in the church. The ordaining minister informs the home church of the ordination, and the new minister's information is added to the official church records.
Their one creed (or doctrine) is stated as: "We only believe in that which is right."
Any person may associate themselves with the Church and, if they feel it is appropriate, request ordination as a minister. 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.
The Church is similar in some respects to the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), although the two were never affiliated. The ULC is sometimes said to be a liberal church with many conservative members. This aspect attracts some individuals to the ULC who are uncomfortable with the liberal activism of the UUA. Church meetings typically allow all present to speak, a practice similar to the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers, although these two groups were also never affiliated.
Charter churches and other denominations associated with the ULC include:
The Universal Life Church Monastery is an offshoot of the ULC that was founded in 1977. ULCM first established a website that allowed individuals to apply for ordination in 1995, and the church is primarily known for its online ordination program. George Freeman is president of the Seattle, Washington-based ministry.
The Universal Life Seminary is one of the charter churches operated by individual ministers of the ULC. The Universal Life Seminary has some theological beliefs that differ from the ULC. The seminary offers courses from a spiritual perspective, as well as some from various religious perspectives, but welcomes and promotes people of all beliefs.
Other chartered ULC congregations/ churches, / ministries, that operate include: the Shrine of the Irish Oak, a small Pagan/Polytheist temple based on the mixed Celto-Roman Polytheism culture and religions. Also an Order of Jedi, inspired in part by the philosophy of the Star Wars motion pictures.
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. The US military chaplain's hand book listed the ULC as one of the churches it recognized. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has ruled that the church was tax-exempt some years, and not tax-exempt other years, based on the annual filing statement required of non-profit organizations. Most states recognize the church as a legal entity by extending recognition to its ministers. A few states have different requirements, but it is up to each individual minister to determine what the law is in their home state. The ULC stands ready to assist its ministers if they experience problems with becoming ordained in their home state or country.
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. 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 their highest court ruled in the affirmative, recognizing the power of a minister of the Universal Life Church to solemnize marriages, is Mississippi. Some states allow anyone to solemnize a marriage. Other states, such as Iowa, recognize any person ordained or designated as a leader in a person's faith as someone who may solemnize a marriage. 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.
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. 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, and it remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings. Although that case remains pending, 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.
Several major countries are also quite restrictive. In Canada, ULC ministers are currently not authorized to solemnize marriage in any province or territory. In many other countries, ULC ministers have no authority to solemnize lawful marriage. Some ministers avoid this complication by meeting requirements to solemnize a civil ceremony, which might include being registered as a notary public, justice of the peace or marriage commissioner.
Writing in The New York Times, Samuel Freedman argues that a recent uptick in the number of people seeking online ordination is due to changing understanding of marriage and individualism within modern Western democracies, and the legalization of same-sex marriage meaning that more couples are seeking personally tailored weddings. He argues that in modern America "denominational borders are ever more porous and traditional dogma is increasingly disparaged as divisive."
Andrew J. Cherlin, a sociology professor at Johns Hopkins University argues that modern "personal, individualistic" attitudes towards marriage are better served by an "an online-ordained friend" who "gives you more control over the ceremony rather than bowing to the restrictions" that other clergy impose.
ULC and the IRS
The IRS sued starting in the 1970s, saying the ULC was not actually a religious group. The lawsuits were settled in 2000 with the church paying $1.5 million in back taxes.
- Samuel Freedman (26 June 2015). "Couples Personalizing Role of Religion in Wedding Ceremonies".
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- "A textbook about the Universal Life Church", Modesto, CA: Universal Life Church, 1992, rev. 2005, p. 8
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- Center for Inquiry v. Marion Circuit Court Clerk, No. 12-3751 (7th Cir. July 14, 2014).
- "Iowa Code 595".
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- Chapter 51, N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 51-1.1 (2007).
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- 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).
- "Boardman lawyer gets ordained to perform same-sex weddings". WKBN. 27 June 2015.
- Sankin, Andrew (3 April 2015). "Inside the Universal Life Church, the internet's one true religion". The Week. Retrieved 2 January 2016.