Universal Life Church Case Law
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ULC Court Cases: Blackwell v. Magee

September 5th, 2012

Case Background

ULC Court Cases: Blackwell v. Magee

The crux of this case centered on whether or not a marriage solemnized by a ULC minister should be legally recognized in Mississippi.

On August 17, 1988, Nadine Fortenberry challenged the will of her late husband, Cobert C. Blackwell. The will left property and a portion of his estate to Blackwell’s first wife, who was deceased by that time. The siblings of Cobert Blackwell, led by Mary Ella B. Magee, claimed that Fortenberry and the deceased had not been legally married. The Chancery Court of Walthall County, Mississippi ruled in favor of the brothers and sisters. Nadine Fortenberry immediately appealed.

Cobert C. Blackwell and Nadine B. Fortenberry obtained a marriage license in Walthall County on November 8, 1984. They checked into a Holiday Inn Southwest the next day and attempted to find someone to solemnize their marriage. They first called Jack Bass, the Hinds County Justice Court Judge. Blackwell spoke with the wife of Bass. She told him that Bass would not come to their motel room to solemnize the marriage and that they would have to come down to his office. She then referred Blackwell to Claude Mark, who she said was authorized to perform marriages. Blackwell contacted Mark, who then solemnized the marriage on November 10, 1984.

On February 7, 1985 Blackwell passed away. His will was executed on July 28 1980, prior to his marriage to Nadine B. Fortenberry. In his will, Blackwell had left his property to his first wife, who had passed away years before his marriage to Fortenberry. According to his will, the rest of his estate would be left to his siblings. Nadine Fortenberry renounced the will and requested that she receive a widow’s allowance and a share of the estate, citing the statute of descent and distribution. Blackwell’s siblings argued that Fortenberry was not legally married to Blackwell because the person who solemnized the marriage, Claude Mark, was not authorized to perform the marriage.

The Chancery Court ruled that Clark was not an ordained minister as defined by state law. The Court dismissed Fortenberry’s petitions, instead ruling that the marriage was not lawful. She immediately appealed the decision.

Case Proceedings

In order reverse the decision in Fortenberry’s favor, the Supreme Court of Mississippi had to determine whether Claude Mark was a legitimate minister. Mark was a practicing Methodist who became an ordained minister through the Universal Life Church. He received his ministerial credentials from the Universal Life Church in the mail, which informed him that his ordination allowed him to perform marriage rites.

According to Clark, he knew of several friends who were ordained by the ULC. He also spoke with his attorney to make sure it was a legitimate practice. He testified that he had performed between 12 and 15 marriages prior to the one of Blackwell and Fortenberry. The Supreme Court recognized other court cases that dealt with Universal Life Church legal matters, such as Rubino v. City of New York and Ravenal v. Ravenal, had resulted in the ruling that marriages officiated by ULC ordained ministers were not valid. They decided, however, that the rulings of those court cases concerning those Universal Life Church legal matters bore no influence on Mississippi law.

Rulings And Outcomes

It was decided that the ULC was a legitimate enough religious institution, making Mark a legitimate minister. They ruled that the marriage between Blackwell and Fortenberry was valid under Mississippi state law. The Supreme Court of Mississippi thus reversed the decision made by the Chancery Court of Walthall County.

Outcome: ULC ministers are legally able to perform wedding ceremonies in Mississippi

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