Sign on at the Universal Life Church's Website, and you, too, can perform legal marriages in these United States.
Thursday, February 18, 1999
Steve Retsky is an instructional technician in the drama department at Monterey Peninsula College. Lari Witt is assistant to the provost of Monterey Institute of International Studies. Steve Webster is a senior marine biologist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Serious jobs. Serious folks.
By the way, in their spare time, all three of them marry people.
These three Monterey County residents are ordained ministers in the Universal Life Church, a 37-year-old Modesto-based church opposed to the state regulation of religion, a church that states openly it will ordain anyone who asks, without question of faith, for free. And once you''re ordained--which you can do simply by typing your name into the ULC Website-- you''re a minister.
Go ahead--log on and see for yourself (www.ulc.org). "Everyone is already a member of the church and is just not aware of it as yet," is the Website''s initial greeting, in keeping with the church''s universalist slant. "Just select ''Become Ordained'' to complete the process right here on our World Wide Web site."
The ULC, founded in 1962 by Modesto resident Kirby Hensley (in his garage), has fought numerous court battles to protect its tax-exempt status and its right to ordain ministers according to its own dictates. Hensley''s most famous victory was a March 1974 decision by California''s U.S. District Judge James Battin, wherein Battin wrote "neither this court, nor any branch of this government, will consider the merits or fallacies of a religion" because to do so "would impinge upon the guarantees of the First Amendment" and violate the principle of separation of Church and State.
"The Universal Life Church is an affirmation of the First Amendment," agrees Witt, who paid $5 for her ordination in 1994. The ULC no longer charges an ordination fee, unless you want a $3 printed certificate to hang on your wall.
And once you''re ordained, you are empowered to sign marriage certificates in every state in the Union.
Legal? Absolutely, says Kirby Hensley''s son Andre, who has taken over the management of ULC headquarters from his 87-year-old father.
"In 75 percent of the states, you don''t even have to register as a minister with the authorities," Andre says. California is one of those states. "If you are ordained by your church, whatever church that is, and you are over 18 years of age, you are authorized to perform marriages in the state of California."
That''s true, confirms Karla Shaw, senior legal process clerk in the Monterey County Clerk''s office. "They don''t have to register with us, so long as they''re an ordained minister," she says. "It''s up to the couple to do the research to make sure the person performing their marriage is authorized and capable of doing so."
Shaw says there''s no way of knowing exactly how many of the 200 to 300 marriages registered each month in Monterey County are performed by ULC ministers. "But a lot of the confidential [i.e. non-publicized] licenses that come back to us are non-denominational, and most of those are ULC," she offers.
Considering that the ULC claims to have ordained 18 million ministers worldwide, that''s not surprising.
Andre Hensley also points out that his father''s heavily publicized legal battles in the ''70s and ''80s dealt with how the church operates--whether it can maintain headquarters in a person''s home, whether contributions may be tax-deductible, etc. Its ministers'' right to perform marriages has never been challenged in the courts, he insists. "In some states, we get people referred to us by the state so they can be ordained and perform marriages," he says. "Seven or eight" years ago, he says, a ULC minister performed the wedding service for the governor of West Virginia.
"Our church was founded for freedom of religion," he repeats. "Your religious beliefs are your own."
Luck of the Draw
That means, of course, that folks don''t necessarily seek ordination for religious reasons. Steve Webster, for example, became a ULC minister 20 years ago at the drop of a coin.
It was December 1978, and his friends Chuck and Suzy Baxter wanted to get married. He and Robin Burnett, who, along with Webster and Baxter were founding forces behind the Monterey Bay Aquarium, flipped a coin to see who would be best man, and who would be minister. Webster lost--or won, depending on how you look at it. He registered with the ULC, paid his fee, and performed the Baxter''s wedding on a boat out in Monterey Bay.
Since then, he''s performed about 35 weddings, he estimates, most of them outdoors and all for friends, mostly in the local dive community. For him, it''s not a spiritual calling. His grandfather was a Baptist preacher, who left the church "because of their fundamentalist views," and became a philosophy professor. "A philosopher I am not, a theologian I am not," he says. "This is simply a means to be able to perform the necessary legal function for my friends."
If he hadn''t lost the coin toss, he would not have sought ordination. "There would have been no reason to," he shrugs. "California is very lenient on this question. You can be minister of the Church of the Geranium Pot if you want."
Lari Witt and Steve Retsky, by contrast, take the spiritual side of their ministerial function very seriously. "I have a spiritual interest in everything," Retsky says. "I distrust organized religions, although I love disorganized religion. If someone wants to make a major life move, with religion involved, and if they need someone to guide them through it and have fun doing it, that''s me. Instead of doing it because society says we have to, just phoning it in, you get the couple involved in writing a fun, meaningful ritual, and they start their marriage from a positive place."
In the four years they''ve been ULC ministers, Witt and Retsky have performed 14 weddings between them, two of them as a couple. "I like being able to offer a service as a couple, to a couple," Witt explains.
"My mom was really happy when I called and told her I was a rabbi," Retsky says. "First there was the doctor thing, then I bugged out of pre-med. So this was great." His Jewish grandmother doesn''t quite get it, though. "She says, ''He''s a rabbi? In his spare time?''"
Church Without Walls
Witt and Retsky incorporate rituals and traditions from many world religions, drawing upon reference books, religious tracts and personal knowledge. Witt often calls upon her Native American heritage, burning white sage in purification ceremonies at the wedding site.
Steve Retsky looks to his Jewish upbringing when he marries couples who want to incorporate Jewish rituals into the ceremony. His first move, he says, is a quick phone call home to Mom in Baltimore. "She''s my main resource," he says.
He married one couple on Carmel''s Ribera Road beach under a 150-year-old Jewish prayer shawl the groom had inherited from his grandfather. "We started with a kiddush [Hebrew prayer over ritual wine], and at the end the crowd shouted ''Mazel Tov'' and they broke the glass."
Witt and Retsky see themselves as providing a service to couples who want religious or spiritual content in their wedding, but who either don''t want to, or cannot, be married within a traditional church. For example, Witt has performed two commitment ceremonies for gay couples this year. One, in November, was for two lesbians. "Both of them were brought up Catholic, they knew they couldn''t be married in the Catholic Church, but they wanted ritual validation to unite them with their families and the church they grew up in," she says.
In May, Witt married two gay men in a forest ceremony, in a redwood grove. "I was inspired, truly, by these two men," she says. "They were beautiful, sweet young men. It was a fairy tale, with a whole mystical quality to it, the Arthurian legend." The rings were brought in on swords, everyone was dressed in gowns or black tie, and "the grove was filled with tall men in suits, dancing so beautifully," she says, her eyes filling with tears as she describes it. "I hate getting teary-eyed," she says.
"If you don''t invest your emotions in it, what''s the point?" Retsky rejoinders.
Both of them counsel couples several times before the wedding, to make sure the intention to wed is sincere. Like Webster, they only work by word-of-mouth. If someone wants them, they find them. It''s a calling, they say, not a business.
Webster, Witt and Retsky all perform their weddings for free. It''s a matter of principle, they say. No one should take money for joining couples in matrimony. "The cost of a church wedding is horrendous," Witt says, noting that an innkeeper in Occidental, where she performed a commitment ceremony, told her that local ministers charge $500 for what she was offering gratis. "A lot of people come to us for pragmatic, financial reasons."
So why do they do it? Well, notes Webster, "These events are usually followed by one heck of a party," a point with which Retsky heartily concurs.
There is also the pleasure of helping folks create a meaningful ritual for a significant life change. "At the beginning, I had no idea this would become so important to me," Witt says. "I''m empowered by these people who let me speak for them in this ritual. It''s made me a happier individual. It''s what I''d like to do for the rest of my life."
Sometimes, Witt and Retsky say, people question the validity of their ministerial credentials. "People ask me, don''t you have to go to school for this?" Retsky says. "So I say, spirituality is very personal. What makes this marriage real is the commitment they make to each other. My signature on the papers I send back [to the county register''s office] just makes it legal."
Witt and Retsky won''t marry people for spurious reasons, like getting a green card, and they won''t marry folks they feel aren''t truly in love. The closest they came to that was a ceremony they both describe as the "worst one" they ever did. The bride was pregnant. The groom was a DLI student. The couple wanted to marry quickly to obtain military benefits.
"We tried to talk them out of it," says Retsky. "But there was a baby involved," Witt chimes in. "He was watching baseball games during our counseling session," Retsky adds. Witt says, rolling her eyes, "It was miserable. The bride was 40 minutes late to her own wedding. They fought before the wedding, they fought after the wedding, and they''re still married." You never know, she points out.
Then there are the "ones that got away," the offbeat wedding ceremonies that never saw the light of day. Once, a young woman asked Retsky to offitiate at a traditional Jewish ceremony, on the beach, where everyone in the wedding party--and guests, presumably--would be nude.
"I said, you want a traditional, naked Jewish ceremony, on the beach in Santa Barbara?" Retsky relates. "I gave her my card, and was very hopeful about it. I told my dad, and he said, at least they''ll know who the Jewish people are." That wedding, unfortunately, never came to pass, but Retsky is still bemused by the possibilities. "I mean, how would the guy break the glass?" he wonders.
Another couple wanted him to marry them underwater. As a certified SCUBA diver, Retsky felt he was uniquely qualified. "We were going to borrow helmets from the Aquarium, I''d be down there with the couple, and we could talk and pipe it up to the people in boats who weren''t divers," he says. "We were going to write the whole ceremony down on slates."
But the couple never called back. "They found another underwater minister," Retsky marvels. "I didn''t know it was such a crowded field." cw