The Universal Life Church (ULC), an online self-described non-denominational religious organization, has been in operation for more than 60 years. Members can become ordained, instantly and for free, online and become empowered to perform functions that traditional ministers can, like weddings or other ceremonies. There are many sites that offer online ordination, but the ULC is by far the largest and most well-known. The ULC displays the many celebrities it has as members on its home page, including musicians like Barbra Streisand, Paul McCartney, and actresses like Sharon Stone.
However, USA Today recently published an article that called attention to the fact that some states—including Tennessee—don’t recognize ULC marriages as lawfully valid.
Universal Life Church marriages invalid under Tennessee code
Recently, a family law attorney in Tennessee was preparing divorce papers for a client, and they started discussing online ministers like those in the Universal Life Church. His client happened to mention that his marriage was actually performed by a ULC minister. The attorney promptly halted divorce proceedings—because he realized his client was never legally married in the first place.
Could this really be true?
Absolutely. Currently, Tennessee and Virginia (and, sometimes, Alabama, New York, Pennsylvania, and Utah) do not recognize marriages performed by ministers ordained via websites like the Universal Life Church. You can find the specific part of Tennessee code relating to what types of ministers can and can’t perform weddings under 36-3-301: “Persons who may solemnize marriages.” The law states that the officiant must be a “regular” minister who received ordination via a “considered, deliberate, and responsible act.”
USA Today noted that this code was actually amended in 1998 to explicitly reinforce the opinion of an attorney general stating that ULC ministers were to be disqualified from performing marriages. Regarding the piece of code about receiving ordination via a “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.”
In general, however, states don’t challenge couples married via the Universal Life Church. The validity of the marriage only comes into play when the couple is divorcing and there are issues regarding alimony or marital property. Alimony can only be awarded if there is a valid marriage. As for marital property, you may need guidance from a divorce attorney to unravel the confusion.
If you are getting married and would like a friend or family member ordained from the ULC to perform your ceremony, but are unsure if your marriage will be legal, simply have an authorized officiant or justice of the peace present at the ceremony as well.
What does the ULC say?
The Universal Life Church issued their own statement after publication of the USA Today article. They have launched a campaign with their attorneys to get ULC ministers recognized as legal ministers in all states. They also stated that they believe the problem in Tennessee might be something totally different, saying that the issue is 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.”
The family law attorneys at the Law Offices of LaFevor & Slaughter can help clients through all stages of life. Our knowledgeable lawyers are experienced in all aspects of family law and are here to answer all of your questions. Call us at 865.272.4454 or complete our contact form to schedule a consultation with a Knoxville divorce lawyer today.