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The Universal Life Church (or ULC) is a religious organization that offers anyone semi-immediate ordination as a ULC minister free of charge. The organization states that anyone can become a minister immediately, without having to go through the pre-ordination process required by other religious faiths. The ordination application, however, must be checked by a human in order to be official; therefore, true ordination usually takes a few days. The ULC’s ordinations are issued in the belief that all people are already ordained by God and that the ULC is merely recognizing this fact.

The ULC has no traditional doctrine, believing as an organization merely in doing "that which is right." Each individual has the privilege and responsibility to determine what is right for him or her as long as it does not infringe on the rights of others. The Church does not stand between the member and their God.

The ULC’s stated beliefs are as follows:
  • Objective: Eternal Progression.
  • Goal: A Fuller Life for Everyone.
  • Slogan: To Live and Help Live.
  • Maxim: “We Are One."


History

The ULC was founded in 1959 under the name "Life Church" 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 man, 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.

In 1958, Hensley and his new wife, Lida, moved to Modestomarker, Californiamarker. There, he founded the first Universal Life Church in 1959 as Life Church, later incorporating in California on the 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, at which time there were many independent branches of the ULC worldwide. They took out their first advertisement in FATE magazine to reach the metaphysical community. The Modesto congregation grew rapidly. The Church spread throughout the West Coast, and today claims to have congregations located all over the United Statesmarker and parts of Canadamarker and many other parts of the world. The organization also states it has a membership of 22 million ULC ministers worldwide.

During the 1960s and 1970s, many people 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 one from being drafted 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, once one has opted out of social security, one is never again allowed to receive social security benefits. Also, this exemption applies only to ministers whose income actually comes from religious services and applies only to such income.

Upon Reverend Kirby Hensley's death, his wife Lida was elected President of the Church. She served as President until her death in 2006. On January 14, 2007, the ULC's Board of Directors elected the Hensleys' son Andre Hensley as President. He had previously been the office manager of the Headquarters, running the day-to-day business of the Church.

Split with the Monastery

During the summer of 2006 there was a split between the headquarters for the ULC (in Modesto, CA), and "The Monastery", an independent offshoot (originally in Seattle, WA and now in Arizona). Ownership of the assets of the Monastery are being disputed and lawsuits have been filed. Daniel Zimmerman, the offshoot's CEO for several years, and Freeman, a former vice-president of The Monastery, each claim to be the rightful CEO of the Monastery and claim to have control over the assets. The Arizona Corporation Commission originally removed Zimmerman from the position and declared Freeman the CEO, but the decision was reversed by the commission and Zimmerman was once again recognized as CEO. Courts also dismissed a lawsuit against Freeman.

Other derivatives

Besides The Monastery, other similarly-named churches have been established to provide online or mail-order ordinations, which may or may not be free of charge.

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.

Ordination in the ULC is free, and what makes the ordination complete is its registry with the ULC home church. People are drawn to the church for many different reasons. Some, including many who have already been ordained into the ranks of more traditional churches, join the ULC in order to express their support for the church's mission to preserve and protect freedom of religion.

Others become ordained in order to officiate at the wedding of a friend or loved one. A number of ULC Ministers have become full-time independent wedding and funeral officiants after being ordained through the ULC, and some pursue advanced degrees in a related field to advance their religious educations.

Some people have turned to the ULC for ordination after being denied by their own church due to their gender or sexual orientation.

Imitators have sprung up that charge a fee for ordination, either selling the free ULC ordination to unsuspecting new converts through sites like eBay, or by creating a knock-off of the ULC model in establishing similar churches.

Unlike most spin-off churches, the ULC holds weekly church services in a historic church building. ULC ministers are authorized by the church to officiate weddings and funerals, perform baptisms, 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.

Advanced degrees

The Universal Life Church offers a variety of doctorates, such as Doctor of Divinity, Doctor of Universal Life, and so forth. Generally these doctorates require the recipient to take one or more courses, pay a modest fee, and in some cases pass a test. For example, the Doctor of Immortality degree is awarded upon the candidate reading the book "A New Life – Do You Want It?" by the Reverend Hensley, correctly answering 75% of a set of questions based on the book, and donating at least US$29.99.

Beliefs

Dedicated ULC members state that they truly believe in freedom of religion. In other words, they want every member to be able to pursue their own spiritual beliefs without interference from the government, church agencies, or any other outside agency. Their one creed (or doctrine) is

Controversy, criticism, lawsuits, and taxes

A major criticism of the ULC is that it accepts all peaceful religious beliefs, holds no views of its own, and is therefore not a "true" church. Various religious groups have spoken out against its practice of immediate ordination without any requirements, maintaining that such an ordination is not even worth the paper it is printed on. Supporters of "open ordination" point out that none of the founders of the world's major religions had advanced religious training. The apostles of Christ were mostly fishermen, for example. They also point to the Bible itself as authority, citing John 15:16 as evidence that ordination has already been granted from God, from the beginning, and that the church merely records the ordination in the official records as a means by which worldly governments will acknowledge it.
Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and [that] your fruit should remain: that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name, he may give it you. (John 15:16, KJV)


In 2002 the Church sued the state of Utahmarker regarding the legality of its Internet-based ordination process. Utah had passed a law banning ministers ordained by mail or over the Internet from officiating legal marriage. The court ruled in favor of the Church, declaring the statute unconstitutional and permanently barring the state from enforcing it, noting among other things that there is essentially no difference between an Internet-based application or mail-order application and one sent by courier, fax machine, phone, or done in person. Had the law been allowed to stand, it might well have had the unintended consequence of "defrocking" many ministers from traditional churches for purposes of officiating marriage, for the ULC is not the only church to conduct such business via U.S. Mail.

The United States government was, for a period of time, concerned that perhaps the Church had been founded as a way for Hensley to avoid paying taxes. In 1985, the ULC began a series of court battles against the IRS to prove its legitimacy as a church. The courts ruled that like any tax-exempt organization, the ULC would qualify for exempt status year by year, based on its financial activities within the tax period. The ULC Headquarters was subsequently found to be tax-exempt for some years and not in others. Tax exemption can apply only to organizations and not to individual ministers. Each congregation within the ULC is legally independent and would be required to establish its own exemption via 5013 or rely on existing tax statutes to determine tax-exempt status without regard to the Headquarters or any other ULC entity. The three main ULC sites all currently are not 501(c)3.

Another common criticism of ULC ordination is that 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 pet will probably receive ordination. The ULC website contains the following warning 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!"

Authority to solemnize marriage and other rites of the church

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.

Within the USA, all 50 states theoretically authorize ministers who are ordained and authorized by their church to officiate marriages. In most states, ordination as a minister is the only requirement for a minister to be able to officiate lawful weddings. Some states require additional documentation, such as a "letter of good standing" or that the minister present his or her credential of ordination and register. One state also requires that the minister must be a United States citizen, and some states specify that the minister must be at least 18 years of age (although this is probably a presumed requirement in all states, since the minister will attest to a legal document).

Some states do not even require actual ordination, but permit those who declare themselves to be ministers to officiate marriage. ULC ministers wishing to perform legal weddings should refer to the local authority in the jurisdiction where the marriage is to occur for specific information about jurisdictional issues and requirements.

Outside the USA, some countries are very liberal in this regard. Japanmarker, for example, will recognize anyone who claims him- or herself to be a minister, regardless of church affiliation. Many developing countries are also quite liberal in their restrictions and definitions.

On the other hand, several major countries are quite restrictive. In Canada, ULC ministers have been authorized to solemnize marriage only in a few local jurisdictions. 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 or a justice of the peace. In some places, such as Saudi Arabiamarker and Iranmarker, religion and government are one, and anyone caught promoting a religious practice outside of the government complex can be subjected to severe punishment.

In many countries of continental Europe, as well as Turkeymarker, Japan and the countries of the former Soviet Union, marriages performed by any religious authority, even of more traditional variety, are not recognized by the state. In such countries, legal marriage is defined strictly as the result of a civil ceremony, and religious rites have no legal significance. The civil ceremony is held at a government location. A religious ceremony can be conducted separately, at which a ULC minister can preside.

The Universal Life Church authorizes its ordained ministers to perform weddings, baptisms, and funerals. They may hold meetings and/or services. The church allows its ministers to perform other rites and sacraments to fulfill the needs of the congregation as well. The church also has a course which qualifies its ministers to provide religious counseling upon completion.

Statements about legal status

Court cases in the United States

Federal



Mississippi

  • ULC authorized to solemnize marriage


North Carolina

  • (December 1980) State convicts person married by ULC minister of bigamy in second marriage, then overturned on appeal due to the marriage by the ULC minister being found as not a legal marriage.
  • (March 1985) Marriage by ULC minister upheld since marriage occurred prior to July 3, 1981 (see NC § 51-1.1)
  • (October 1985) Individual accuses ULC of fraud; church wins in district court.
  • ULC marriages prior to July 3, 1981 are validated. (NC § 51-1.1.) Marriages solemnized after July 3, 1981 are questionable in legality due to the above case law.


New York

  • Marriage annulled on basis that ULC minister lacked qualifications under New York Statutes: no congregation and not appointed by head of ecclesiastical order.
  • Marriage annulled on basis ULC minister lacked actual church or stated meeting place.
  • New York City right to deny license to ULC ministers upheld.


Pennsylvania

  • Judge affirms the right for ULC ministers to officiate marriages. Only valid in Bucks County.


Utah

  • (2002) Internet-based minister ordination declared valid


Virginia

  • The Supreme Court of Virginia held that a trial court did not err by rescinding the authority of ULC "ministers" to perform marriages based on Virginia Code section 20-23. The Court stated: "[w]e do not believe that the General Assembly ever intended to qualify, for licensing to marry, a minister whose title and status could be so casually and cavalierly acquired." 214 Va. 561, 567 (1974).


Opinions of state attorneys general

  • (11 January 1971)
  • (29 March 1973)
  • (1971)


See also



References



External links




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