The Universal Life Church and North Carolina Law

Note: This article refers to the Universal Life Church Online, based in Modesto, California and NOT to the Universal Life Church World Headquarters of Carrabelle, FL. The latter is a Christian organization legally entitled to ordain for all states in the U.S.

I often come across people in the Wedding business and elsewhere who, when finding I am ordained, confidently tell me that they can also officiate because they are also ordained. In almost every case, they are referring to online ordination through the Universal Life Church.

The Universal Life Church, or ULC, has been around since the 1960s and is easily the largest organization offering ordination through the Internet or by mail. While many states may accept registration through the ULC as conferring the legal right to perform a marriage ceremony, there are a small number of states where significant legal and legislative issues bring this seriously into question. North Carolina is one of those states.

North Carolina General Statute 51-1.1 states:

Any marriages performed by ministers of the Universal Life Church prior to July 3, 1981, are validated, unless they have been invalidated by a court of competent jurisdiction, provided that all other requirements of law have been met and the marriages would have been valid if performed by an official authorized by law to perform wedding ceremonies. (1981, c. 797.)

The background to the introduction of this law is quite an interesting and colorful one.

In a 1980 case, State vs Lynch, a man named James Lynch was prosecuted for bigamy. He had married his first wife, Sandra, and then, without divorcing her, married again to a woman called Mary Alice. For doing this, he was charged with bigamy. His defense attorney argued that his marriage to Sandra was legally invalid as it had been solemnized by her father, who had only been ordained my mail as a Universal Life Church minister.

The North Carolina Supreme Court overturned his conviction, holding that indeed his first marriage had not been valid. Although the court stated in their judgement that the state does not have the power “to declare what is or is not a religious body or who is a religious leader within the body, ” it nonetheless held that “A ceremony solemnized by a … layman in the mail order business who bought for $10.00 a mail order certificate giving him ‘credentials of a minister’ in the Universal Life Church, Inc. – whatever that is – is not a ceremony of marriage to be recognized for purposes of a bigamy prosecution in the State of North Carolina.”

Because of this ruling the NC legislature felt that the expectations of married couples who had used ULC ministers before this time should be protected, and adopted a law to make clear that pre-existing ULC marriages were all valid as long as they had not been specifically invalidated by a court. The statue was notably silent about ULC marriages after that date in 1981, but the strong legal implication of that, allied with the judgement of State vs Lynch, is that ULC marriages could no longer be celebrated in North Carolina. Additionally, later cases have suggested, though not ruled, that this is the case.

With the above facts in mind it would seem highly advisable not to engage a ULC minister to officiate any North Carolina wedding. This is not to say that all ULC ministers are in any way inferior in their skills or performance, simply that there are serious legal implications in that choice. This is another strong reason why, when choosing an officiant in this or any state, it is vital to review their credentials and the organizations by which these are issued. Never be afraid to ask your Minister to show their paperwork!

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