Universal Life Church

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Universal Life Church
Universal Life Church logo.png
LeaderAndre Hensley
HeadquartersModesto, California[1]
FounderKirby J. Hensley
OriginMay 2, 1962
Modesto, California
Members18,000,000+[2][dubious ]
Official websiteulchq.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, Ian McKellen,[4] Conan O’Brien and Steven Tyler, among others.[5] Some jurisdictions do not recognize marriages solemnized by ULC ministers.[6]


The Universal Life Church was founded by Kirby J. Hensley in 1959 under the name "Life Church" in Modesto, California.[3][7] He first held services in his garage, and incorporated the organization in 1962.[8]

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.[9]

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.[10][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.[11] There are currently multiple groups operating under the ULC name, most of which are unaffiliated in practice.[9]

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.[9]

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.[11]

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]

Legality in US[edit]

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. According to a survey conducted by wedding website The Knot, 43% of responding website users who married in 2016 chose friends or family members as wedding officiants.[12] 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.[6]

United States[edit]

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,[13] although four states, Alaska, Massachusetts, Vermont and Virginia, allow anyone to solemnize a marriage.[14] 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.[13] In 2002, a federal court in Utah ruled that internet-based ordination of ULC ministers is lawful.[15] [16] [17]

Courts in 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.[18] North Carolina law subsequently was amended to validate marriages performed by ministers of the Universal Life Church prior to July 3, 1981,[19] and marriages solemnized by a ULC minister after that date are voidable, although equitable estoppel may prevent the parties themselves from challenging the marriage.[20]

In New York, the legal authority of ULC ministers to solemnize marriage varies from county to county. [21] In the 1989 case Ranieri v. Ranieri, a judge declared that ULC ministers are not legally eligible to perform marriage ceremonies.[22] [23]However, a more recent court ruling stated that it is a factual question whether the ULC is a "church" whose ministers have authority under New York law to solemnize a marriage;[24] 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.[25] 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.[26]

Lower courts in Pennsylvania have split on the issue.[27] A 2007 court decision affirmed that marriages performed by ULC ministers, including those ministers ordained online, are valid in Pennsylvania, although the ruling is only binding in Bucks County.[28]

In the opinion of the Tennessee Attorney General, persons ordained by the ULC are not qualified under Tennessee law to solemnize a marriage.[29]


In Canada, ULC ministers are currently not authorized to solemnize marriage in any province or territory.[30] 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. ^ a b 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).
  7. ^ Ashmore, Lewis (1977). The Modesto messiah: The famous mail-order minister. Universal Press. ISBN 0-918950-01-5.
  8. ^ 1931-, Ashmore, Lewis, (1977). The Modesto messiah : the famous mail-order minister. Bakersfield, Calif.: Universal Press. ISBN 0918950015. OCLC 5551316.
  9. ^ 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.
  10. ^ "Cramer v. Commonwealth". Justia Law. Retrieved 2018-09-16.
  11. ^ a b "Universal Life Goes On". modbee. Retrieved 2018-09-16.
  12. ^ Britto, Brittany. "The new normal: Friends, family presiding at weddings". baltimoresun.com. Retrieved 2018-10-28.
  13. ^ a b In re Blackwell, 531 So. 2d 1193 (Miss. 1988).
  14. ^ Center for Inquiry v. Marion Circuit Court Clerk, No. 12-3751 (7th Cir. July 14, 2014).
  15. ^ [ttps://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=17066217380962386551 "UNIVERSAL LIFE CHURCH,v.The State of UTAH"]. 17 January 2002. Retrieved 11 November 2018.
  16. ^ "Universal Life Church v. Utah, 189 F. Supp. 2d 1302 (D. Utah 2002)". Justia Law. Retrieved 2018-11-11.
  17. ^ Rains, Robert E. (April 2010). "Marriage in the Time of Internet Ministers: I Now Pronounce You Married, But Who Am I to Do So?". University of Miami Law Review.
  18. ^ 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).
  19. ^ Chapter 51, N.C. Gen. Stat. Ann. § 51-1.1 (2007).
  20. ^ Duncan v. Duncan, 754 S.E.2d 451 (N.C. Ct. App. 2014).
  21. ^ Mallozzi, Vincent M. "Making Sure That Online Officiant Is Legal". Retrieved 2018-11-18.
  22. ^ "ULC Court Cases: Ranieri v. Ranieri - Universal Life Church Legal Cases - ULC Case Law". ulccaselaw.com. Retrieved 2018-11-18.
  23. ^ Mallozzi, Vincent M. "Making Sure That Online Officiant Is Legal". Retrieved 2018-11-18.
  24. ^ Oswald v. Oswald, 2013 N.Y. Slip Op. 02811 (N.Y. App. Div. 2013).
  25. ^ Oswald v. Oswald, RJI No. 57-1-2011-0389 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. June 9, 2016).
  26. ^ Ponorovskaya v. Stecklow, 2014 NY Slip Op 24140 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 2014).
  27. ^ 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).
  28. ^ "TECH NEWS: Judge upholds marriage officiated by minister ordained..." Retrieved 2018-11-04.
  29. ^ Tenn. Op. Att'y Gen. 15-14 (Feb. 6, 2015).
  30. ^ "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]