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 was founded under the name "Life Church" in 1959 by the Reverend Kirby J. Hensley, who 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, Hensley concluded that the proper religion may differ for each person, and everyone is entitled to choose one's own religion. No one should be criticized or condemned for wanting to practice the beliefs of one's choice. Hensley incorporated the Universal Life Church with Co-Founder and (then) Vice President Lewis Ashmore in California on May 2, 1962. Hensley served as minister of the congregation and was President of the Board of Directors 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 as president Hensley's son, Andre Hensley. He had previously been office manager of the headquarters, running the day-to-day business of the church.
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 services in an historic church building in Modesto. ULC ministers are authorized to officiate at weddings and funerals, perform baptisms or verbal baby naming ceremonies, hold services (called meetings), and all other sacraments and rites regularly performed by ordained clergy as part of the belief system the minister represents. Ministers in the ULC are also authorized and encouraged to ordain others as ministers. The ordaining minister informs the home church, and the information is added to the official church records.
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. However, the US military chaplain's hand book lists the ULC as one of the churches it recognizes. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) has ruled in some years that the church was tax-exempt, but has not in 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 do not, and it is up to each minister to determine their legal standing in their home state. The ULC assists its ministers if they experience problems with being recognized in their home or country.
- 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, 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.
Ministers are allowed to follow their own belief system path. For example, ministers of the Church may follow a traditional Christian belief system, they may follow other world religions, they may blend various faith traditions, or they may be agnostic or atheist. The latter may serve as humanist ministers or non-religious officiants. Humanist ministers or officiants may also be registered by the Humanist Society, a non-related group.
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. However, since 2006, the Universal Life Church Monastery is no longer affiliated with the main Universal Life Church.
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.and Dallas Universal Life Church, a modern nondenominational Christian church that is promoting itself as a church of doers rather than just talkers.
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 the highest court has recognized 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, without specifically addressing whether a ULC minister is such a person. 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; on remand, the plaintiff offered no evidence, and the 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.
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.
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.
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- "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).
- Tenn. Op. Att'y Gen. 15-14 (Feb. 6, 2015).
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