|Universal Life Church|
Logo of the Universal Life Church
|Founder||Kirby J. Hensley|
|Origin||May 2, 1962 |
The Universal Life Church (ULC) is a non-denominational religious organization founded in 1962 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 for a small fee, and in many cases 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, pagans, Jews, 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. However, four U.S. states have held that they will not recognize marriages solemnized by ULC ministers, while eight states have specifically held such marriages to be valid, these being Alabama, Illinois, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, and Washington. The remainder have not addressed the issue.
Foundation and early growth
The Universal Life Church was founded by Kirby J. Hensley, "a self-educated Baptist minister who was deeply influenced by his reading in world religion". Religious scholar James R. Lewis wrote that Hensley "began to conceive of a church that would, on the one hand, offer complete freedom of religion, and could, on the other hand, bring all people of all religions together, instead of separating them". With this aim, he sought to establish "a new religion that would emphasize what all religions have in common", establishing this entity 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. In the late 1960s, Hensley "became something of a folk hero among the young", particularly with college students, whom he would mass-ordain at speaking events. He offered a Doctor of Divinity degree from the ULC for twenty dollars, including "ten free lessons explaining how to set up a church", until the state of California ordered him to stop issuing degrees without accreditation. 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.
Later expansion and division
The 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.
By 1999, the ULC had begun 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. 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. A 2007 article noted that "[a]bout 70 percent of people who become ordained through the Universal Life Church do so... to officiate at weddings". According to a 2016 internal survey conducted by wedding website The Knot and reported by the Baltimore Sun, 43% of couples in the U.S. in 2016 chose to have a friend or family member officiate their wedding, up from 29% in 2009. Another example of a person becoming ordained through ULC in order to perform a religious ritual is that of a Native American in Cincinnati, who needed such an affiliation to perform smudging ceremonies as part of the prayer ritual for other Native Americans in area hospitals.
Following Kirby Hensley's death in 1999, an organizational split led to the creation of the ULC Monastery (ULCM; now based in Seattle under the name Universal Life Church Ministries), which remains unaffiliated with the Modesto group. The ULCM formally split from the ULC in 2006 following financial, legal, and philosophical disputes between the two bodies and began ordaining ministers independently.
Beliefs and practices
The U.S. Department of the Army publication, Religious Requirements and Practices: A Handbook for Chaplains, summarized the doctrines of the ULC as follows:
The Universal Life Church has only one belief. They believe in that which is right and in every person's right to interpret what is right. The Universal Life Church has no creed or authoritative book such as a Bible. Those wishing to learn about the Church can obtain its periodical Universal Life and other materials that it publishes from its international headquarters. No specific ethical guidelines except to do "what is right". ... The Universal Life Church is open and accepting of people of all religions. It is opposed only to those religions that attempt to deny religious freedom. Any minister in the ULC can ordain new members. ... The Universal Life Church has no specific holidays, though local congregations celebrate a wide variety of them. There are two gatherings (conventions) each year in the spring and in the fall, at which the members and ministers meet for celebration and to conduct business.
According to Lewis, Hensley personally believed in reincarnation, in a merely human Jesus, and "in the reunification of all religions and governments under the Universal Life banner during thirty years of turmoil around the year 2000"; however, none of these beliefs were doctrinal to the ULC, which allowed members to follow their own doctrines. The Army's Handbook for Chaplains also notes that the ULC "has a very loose structure", with those ordained being given "a set of instructions on how to form a congregation", but otherwise operating with complete autonomy. It further notes that those ordained "may perform any of the functions normally associated with the clergy, including the conducting of weddings, funerals, etc.", and that "[g]roup worship is not required, but local congregations are required to hold regular meetings". The ULC is noted to have no medical or dietary restrictions, and no specific burial requirements. With respect to military service, the handbook notes that the ULC maintains no doctrinal opposition to military service, but "respects the individual opinion of its members".
The legitimacy of ULC ordination has been challenged in legal venues, primarily with respect to the questions of whether it constitutes a religious affiliation for tax purposes, and whether ordinations legally permit recipients to perform weddings in various jurisdictions. Lewis notes that the Internal Revenue Service has generally assumed a negative predisposition towards the ULC, and has sought to eliminate the organization's tax-exempt status. A number of legal cases have addressed this question, as well as the ordination question, with varying results.
Four U.S. states expressly 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. Professor Robert Rains, writing in the University of Miami Law Review, has warned that "even a reasonably intelligent (and suspicious) person could be readily misled by the ULC into believing that by becoming a ULC minister he can legally perform marriages throughout the United States, and beyond." 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.
The ULC has occasionally been criticized for its openness and ease of ordination. Some people, usually as a joke, submit ordination requests for their pets. The ULC has tried to curb the ordination of pets, but if the name on the application appears to be legitimate, the application will probably be submitted. The ULC website warns against fraudulent ordination requests, including attempts to ordain pets: "No one is rejected because of their name, but we must protect the integrity of the records against those who fraudulently submit requests for pets, obscene names, etc. Applying for ordination in the name of a fictitious person or animal, or the submission of a person's name without his or her permission is fraud, and may subject you to prosecution!" In 2015, The New York Times wrote that the ULC "pumps out ordinations at an assembly-line pace, almost mocking a process that usually requires years of seminary study".
- "Contact Universal Life Church". Modesto, CA: Universal Life Church. Archived from the original on January 28, 2018. Retrieved January 28, 2018.
- "ModestoBee.com". Archived from the original on August 2, 2017. Retrieved August 2, 2017.
- James R. Lewis, The Encyclopedia of Cults, Sects, and New Religions (2001), p. 769-70.
- U.S. Department of the Army, Religious Requirements and Practices: A Handbook for Chaplains (2001), p. VII-47-49.
- 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. Archived from the original on February 12, 2019. Retrieved September 16, 2018.
- "Couples Personalizing Role of Religion in Wedding Ceremonies". Archived from the original on September 16, 2018. 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).
- "Couples looking to marry in Alabama don't need a judge or church; a friend can do the job". Huntsville Real-Time News. January 13, 2019. Archived from the original on October 9, 2019. Retrieved October 9, 2019.
- "Center for Inquiry Inc v. Marion Circuit Court Clerk". Findlaw. March 31, 2016. Retrieved May 11, 2020.
- "MATTER OF LAST WILL & TEST. OF BLACKWELL, 531 So. 2d 1193 - Miss: Supreme Court 1988 - Google Scholar". Archived from the original on September 30, 2018. Retrieved September 1, 2019.
- "O'Neill v Bucks County". Archived from the original on August 7, 2017. Retrieved August 28, 2017. (1.45 MB)
- "South Carolina Office of the Attorney General Opinion". Archived from the original on December 8, 2015. Retrieved September 24, 2019. (6.08 KB) (11 January 1971).
- "South Carolina Office of the Attorney General Opinion". Archived from the original on December 8, 2015. Retrieved September 24, 2019. (5.02 KB) (29 March 1973)
- Ctr. for Inquiry, Inc. v. Warren, CIVIL ACTION NO. 3:18-CV-2943-B at *20 (N.D. Tex., 2019).
- "Universal Life Church v. Utah, 189 F. Supp. 2d 1302". Dist. Court, D. Utah. January 17, 2002. Archived from the original on September 30, 2018. Retrieved November 1, 2017.
- "Letter Opinion 1971 No. 117 | Washington State". www.atg.wa.gov. Archived from the original on August 9, 2019. Retrieved August 12, 2019.
- 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.CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
- "Inside the Universal Life Church, the Internet's one true religion - The Kernel". The Kernel. December 14, 2014. Archived from the original on September 16, 2018. Retrieved September 16, 2018.
- "Cramer v. Commonwealth". Justia Law. Archived from the original on September 16, 2018. Retrieved September 16, 2018.
- "Universal Life Goes On". modbee. Archived from the original on September 16, 2018. Retrieved September 16, 2018.
- Lauren Bishop, Ordained for the Occasion, The Cincinnati Enquirer (April 14, 2007), p. A1, A9.
- Britto, Brittany. "The new normal: Friends, family presiding at weddings". baltimoresun.com. Archived from the original on April 11, 2019. Retrieved October 28, 2018.
- "Pa. judge nullifies weddings by online ministers". USA Today. Archived from the original on November 13, 2014. Retrieved December 27, 2014.
- "UI students serve as ordained ministers". The Daily Iowan. Archived from the original on November 13, 2014. Retrieved December 27, 2014.
- Hodges, Jane (June 12, 2008). "Chapel Bound: Getting Ordained Online". The Wall Street Journal. Archived from the original on December 28, 2014. Retrieved December 27, 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, 834 - 35 (2010).
- "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.
- Cody Clark (Daily Herald). "You may now lick the bride: Canine clergyman helps household pets tie the knot". Pet Weds: Pet & Animal Nuptials. Archived from the original on December 22, 2008. Retrieved June 15, 2009.
- "Couples Personalizing Role of Religion in Wedding Ceremonies". The New York Times. June 26, 2015. Archived from the original on October 24, 2018. Retrieved August 29, 2019.