Jessica Kozak in her new business, Simply Married, in downtown Toledo. The business, kitty-corner to the Lucas County Courthouse, offers an alternative site for a wedding.
When same-sex marriages were declared legal by the U.S. Supreme Court on June 26, ministers at the Lucas County Courthouse and Toledo’s wedding chapel Simply Married performed some of the first official same-sex weddings.
Those ministers were ordained in a church movement that offers instant ordination.
Sandra Frost, at the time the only courthouse-resident minister who would marry a same-sex couple, and Jessica Kozak and Jenifer Haley, sisters who are the celebrants at Simply Married, have Universal Life Church ordinations. To date, more than 75 same-sex couples have had their weddings at the courthouse or Simply Married, according to the officiants.
Those clergy members marry opposite-sex couples too; Ms. Frost has conducted more than 37,000 weddings since she obtained her Universal Life Church ordination in 1988, she said.
“I believe in what I’m doing, and I am helping people,” Ms. Frost said. “There are so many people that can’t be married if they’ve been divorced, [are of] different religions, different races yet, and I wanted to be able to help those people that couldn’t be married in the traditional church.”
Mrs. Kozak said that reasons people can’t get married in their own church are “not my business.” Simply Married takes those ceremonies.
When Ms. Frost first thought about presiding at weddings, she said, “I wanted to be a justice of the peace. Then I found out there are no longer justices of the peace [in Ohio].” The Universal Life Church became her substitute.
Ms. Frost’s church, begun by Kirby Hensley in 1959, is based in Modesto, Calif., and led by its third president, Andre Hensley, the son of Kirby and second president Lida Hensley. A spin-off organization, the Universal Life Church Monastery, in Seattle, started in 1977 and became independent in 2006; the ministers at Simply Married are ordained through the Monastery.
The Modesto and Seattle churches are not on friendly terms, but both offer free ordinations — more than 20 million worldwide so far — from a number of websites. They also sell supporting materials and conduct religious-freedom advocacy. An applicant can fill out information and click “ordain me,” and that’s it. No training, no examination. The newly ordained might pay a fee for church paperwork needed to file with the state.
“I know there’s this perception out there that we’re some type of mill for ordinations,” said Charlie Kay, the Monastery’s church administrator. “That’s not our perspective at all. We’re providing a valid religious home for people looking at questions they want to get answered.”
Both Universal Life Church branches have the same basic tenets.
“Our common thread is our adherence to the universal doctrine of religious freedom: ‘Do only that which is right,’” the Universal Life Church from Modesto says at ulc.net.
At ulc.org, the Monastery website says, “The Universal Life Church wholly believes in its mantra — ‘We are all children of the same universe.’”
One more tenet is given at themonastery.org , “Every individual is free to practice their religion in the manner of their choosing, as mandated by the First Amendment, so long as that expression does not impinge upon the rights or freedoms of others and is in accordance with the government’s laws.”
“I try to do what is good and right,” Ms. Frost said.
Mrs. Kozak said that when she began Simply Married she was inspired by words from the Monastery website: “The Universal Life Church is the only denomination worldwide that opens its doors to all people.”
Couples in Ohio can be married by certain public officials or “an ordained or licensed minister,” as Section 3101.08 of Ohio's Revised Code says, with rare exceptions.
There are more certified ministers in the Universal Life Church and Monastery — almost 18,500 — than in any other denomination, according to the Ohio secretary of state's online database. By comparison,17,753 have “Baptist” in their denomination name and 6,346 people have “Catholic.”
“Anyone who is ordained with the Universal Life Church is able to independently operate their own ministry,” said Charlie Kay, church administrator for the Monastery. “We are not directly involved on a day-to-day basis.”
“A lot of congregations operate under their own local names,” Mr. Hensley said.
In late 2014, attorney Charles Weasel started the brick-and-mortar Universal Life Church at 1137 S. Main St., Findlay. Mr. Weasel, a Unitarian who got a Monastery ordination, owned the building used by the Christian Science Church, and after that congregation dissolved, he started holding humanist Universal Life Church services there Sundays at 10 a.m.
“Sometimes there’s only two people there,” he said, but he is faithful to the time and he has a choir/band twice a month.
The Findlay church “teaches tolerance for all religions and it explores more or less from an academic viewpoint what religions are all about,” Mr. Weasel said.
Though Ms. Frost doesn’t have a church, “I’ll do anything I’m asked but preach,” she said. “It takes quite a lot of work to prepare a sermon for every Sunday, and I just don’t believe that I’m able to do that.”
“I think it’s funny to think about myself as a minister,” Mrs. Kozak said. “Anything else comes first: I’m a business owner, I’m a mother, I’m a wife. … I think ministers are often more associated with somebody that’s standing in front of a congregation and preaching, whatever that faith is, and I’m not doing that. I'm marrying people, and I’m making them happy and sending them on their way.”
To some, that belief should be the foundation of all religions.
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