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Universal Life Church
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The Universal Life Church is a mail-order church (or diploma mill) that will ordain anyone as a minister for life, for no charge. They do this without regard for anyone's beliefs or lack thereof. Ask and ye shall receive.
The original Universal Life Church was founded by Kirby Hensley in 1959 and incorporated in 1962. There are currently multiple organizations operating under similar names and providing similar services.
Marriage, State laws, and the ULC
To date, the vast majority of American states require that only judges, officers of the court, clergy, or ordained ministers have the legal right to bind two people in a marriage. (Some states, however, will give anyone a license to officiate at a wedding for one day in exchange for a fee.) Anyone who is an atheist, a freethinker, a born-again-church-hater, or who just wants their best friend to officiate is out of luck. (Contrary to popular belief, ship captains have never had the right to officiate weddings.) The ULC's primary function is to provide people a back door beyond these archaic and religionistic laws. The need for "non-religious" clergy is doubly important for states which have legalized same-sex unions.
Some states require that a person have a Doctor of Divinity to qualify as a chaplain, to perform funerals, and other traditionally religious societal functions. The ULC and rival organizations offer honorary Doctor of Divinity degrees as well as ordinations, which legally satisfy the requirements of state laws (at least in some states), allowing people to use the prefix Reverend Doctor (Rev Dr) or the suffix (D.D.) to their name. Honorary degrees, which are not accredited and require no work or training, are not uncommon in the world of church ministry. For example, Rev Dr Billy Graham, D.D., never studied for a degree, but was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Divinity degree (though this was from an established educational institution, not a diploma mill).
In 2001, the U.S. state of Utah attempted to ban the validity of mail-order and online ordinations for the purpose of performing marriages, specifically targeting the ULC, but when the ULC challenged this law, the court ruled in favor of ULC ordinations being valid and struck down the ban.
Schisms, spin-offs and rip-offs
Several rival organizations use the name Universal Life Church, or suspiciously similar terms, since the name cannot be trademarked due to the implications of the word "universal".
In 2006, the ULC split with two competing organizations now claiming the name: the Universal Life Church based in California, and the Universal Life Church Monastery based in Seattle. Both offer free ordinations via mail or online. Various ULC websites exist as feeders to one or the other.
The Universal Life Church World Headquarters is an unaffiliated Universal Life Church which (at least nominally) adheres to a traditional doctrine of Christian faith. The ULCWHQ's status as a faith-based church, something its website makes a big deal about, is probably intended to keep it more immune to legal challenges than the other organizations, since the lack of religious doctrine has often been the basis of cases against the ULC. The ULCWHQ's "Become a Minister" page strongly suggests that it was set up for this purpose, and deliberately adopted the ULC's name, in phrases such as "We Are The Only Universal Life Church That Offers Legal Faith Based Ordination Within a Traditional Doctrine of Faith".
While most other ULC organizations offer free ordinations, the ULCWHQ requires anyone ordering an ordination to buy a "credential packet" and ID card, totalling over $75. The credential packet includes a misprinted certificate stating "Memeber in Good Standing" [sic.], something the ULCWHQ attempts to pass off as "proper etiquette & spelling for an ordination certificate".
As well as ordinations (free or otherwise), Universal Life Church organizations offer a range of services and merchandise for their "clergy", usually for a profit, including wedding supplies, reference materials for performing ceremonies, registration letters (required for officiating in some states), correspondence courses and honorary degrees.
Tax evasion and other scams
In the past, some tax protesters attempted to use ULC ordinations as an excuse not to pay taxes: obtaining a free ordination, then starting a "church" with themselves as the only member, and taking a vow of "poverty" while placing their assets under the tax-exempt status of their "church". The Internal Revenue Service has cracked down on this practice, defining what constitutes a "church" (in terms on tax status) in a fourteen-point set of criteria, and now even the ULC website warns members to be cautious about their tax assessments. However, ULC ordinations and validity are recognized in many localities depending on various state and national laws.
Following in the footsteps of the Native American Church, which holds peyote as a sacrament, some people have attempted to found churches seeking to claim a religious exemption for the use of marijuana in religious services, etc. One such church — the Free Marijuana Church of Honolulu — was founded by Bernard von Nothaus, the founder of Liberty Dollar, a libertarian "alternative" currency.
- Universal Life Church v. State of Utah, January 17th, 2002. See Universal Life Church Legal Cases.
- Universal Life Church World Headquarters
- Become a Minister
- Universal Life Church World Headquarters online store
- Ministry Credential Packet details, at ULCWHQ store
- ULC Seminary online store
- See this example from 1983.
- "IRS Fourteen Points" at ULC (Monastery).
- Evidenced by their ability to perform marriage in many states
- "‘Liberty Dollar’ Creator Seeks Greener Grass", Southern Poverty Law Center, January 6, 2009