You may have heard of the Universal Life Church (ULC), the self-described online “multi-denominational religious organization” that allows members to become ordained and perform functions that ministers can, like weddings. There are other sites that offer online ordination, but ULC is the biggest and the most well-known. Many celebrities have famously used it to perform weddings, like Stephen Colbert and Paul McCartney. However, a recent article in USA Today called attention to the startling fact that, in some states, these marriages aren’t actually valid under the eyes of the law.
Universal Life Church marriages invalid in several states
An attorney in Tennessee was preparing divorce papers for a client, and they got to talking about “mail order ministers” like those in the Universal Life Church. When his client mentioned that his marriage was performed by a ULC minister, he realized he didn’t need to finalize the divorce papers after all—because his client was never legally married to begin with.
Currently, Tennessee and Virginia (and sometimes Alabama, New York, Pennsylvania, and Utah) don’t recognize ministers ordained through websites like the Universal Life Church. If you were married by a ULC minister here in Maryland, though, your marriage is valid. However, some states and counties do require couples and these types of officiants to jump through additional hoops, so it’s prudent to speak to local government or your family law attorney before your ceremony.
The part of Tennessee code relating to what kinds of ministers can and can’t perform weddings falls under 36-3-301: “Persons who may solemnize marriages.” The wording of the law states that the officiant must be a “regular” minister who received ordination via a “considered, deliberate, and responsible act.”
This code was actually amended in 1998 to explicitly reinforce an attorney general’s opinion that Universal Life Church ministers were disqualified. Regarding receiving ordination via “responsible act,” the attorney general’s opinion read, “Other than the click of a mouse, no ‘considered, deliberate, and responsible act’ as required by Tennessee Code Annotated 36-3-301 is a prerequisite for ordination by the Universal Life Church.”
Typically, states don’t challenge couples married via the Universal Life Church unless the couple gets divorced and there’s an issue regarding marital property or alimony. Alimony can only be decided if there is a valid marriage. Jointly-owned property is usually split equally.
If you do want a friend or family member to marry you via the ULC and you’re unsure if your marriage will be valid, simply have an authorized officiant or justice of the peace present as well.
The ULC responds
The Universal Life Church issued a statement after the USA Today article was published. They are currently working with attorneys to get ULC ministers recognized as legal ministers in all states. They believe that the problem in Tennessee may be another issue altogether; the result of a “relatively recent shift in Tennessee policy … that we have been led to believe is a heavy-handed effort to restrict gay marriage in the wake of the 2015 Supreme Court decision.”
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